Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TROPA, Pisay and UP Theater in the 90s

Back in 1989 in UP Diliman, a few people, common friends of a Philippine Science High School alumnus named Auraeus Solito gathered at his house to talk about forming a theater group that would stage plays supportive of original Filipino material and that weren't established norms.

I met Auraeus in early 1989 at a German puppet show in Abelardo Hall at the College of Music. Prior to that, my organization sponsored a twin production called Imoral/Isla Negra by the UP Third World Studies Center staged at the College of Engineering directed by him. Bimbi Verdadero, a fellow member in that organization, and myself, attended the German puppet show late in the afternoon and found ourselves enjoying the post-show talking to Auraeus that ended way past 10 in the evening at the Abelardo Hall grounds discussing theater, art, literature and revolutionizing the theater scene. Wow, such big ideas, such ideals!

Auraeus was then a Theater Arts major and I, a painting major at the College of Fine Arts with no theater background whatsoever, except perhaps participating in a declamation contest in grade school in which I lost, and a protracted membership to the UP Repertory Company. We parted with an invitation to his house in Sampaloc to meet with his other friends.

Apparently, forming an alternative theater group had been on Auraeus' mind for some time. When we finally met at his house a month-and-a-half later (summer of '89, was it?), there were his friends from other colleges and disciplines, none of whom I knew. It was bad enough that I overstayed as it was in UP in '89; therefore, most of those I met at his house were batches younger than I.

There is something infectious about Auraeus and the way our ideas jibed although I wasn't ready at the time to jump into another foray as I intended to finally finish my course that year. (Hmmm, think again.)

The combined energies of people in the performing arts are even more infectious, and together, we felt like nothing could stop us from achieving our goal. Thus was born the UP Tropa Experimental Theater Company, aka Tropa.

I had reservations about the word "Tropa" then. It was, I thought, too pedestrian, too un-theater-like and unconventional. However, since it looked like the majority of what would be its membership seemed fine with it, I did not raise any objections.

From Rene to Roger

Auraeus had been friends with the late Rogelio Sicat, the Filipino professor and playwright.

"Sir Roger" as we called him, our surrogate pater, guide and adviser, was requested—nay, forced into submission—by Auraeus to translate the Sartre play Hui Clos (No Exit) to Filipino as our maiden production. Auraeus had originally approached the late Rene O. Villanueva for translation but they were in some disagreement with the text. Hui Clos "is a minimalist play," Auraeus told me; "we only need three major characters and we will conduct the auditions next month." Wow, an audition!?

I had not come into the pre-production until after the auditions as I was preparing to enroll in the following semester yet again. I was given the task of designing the stage (what a dream it was for me to do stage design, then offered me on a silver platter!) but a rather unconventional one, however. And then started my crash course on theater terminologies, many of which I never encountered in my stretched-out Fine Arts course: raked stage, in the round, stage-left, stage-right, upstage, downstage, proscenium, mumbo-jumbo. No, mumbo-jumbo is not a theater term.

We had a few months to go and I was being pressured to come up with acting areas "to mask" (another new term), sofas and chairs to approximate, and a gigantic tilted door at the top corner of the diamond-shaped stage; a door at the peak of that diamond raked (tilted) stage that had no backstage to conceal whatever and that was supposed to open and close by itself. How was I to achieve that other than the self-opening and closing feature, I thought; it was an irregularly-shaped door that reached about 12 -feet high or so at its tip. At some point I felt the need to consult an engineer—someone, anyone—as requirements (more like Aureaus' requirements) started becoming too much to handle. Consult I did about the door mechanism. Rather late in the game, though, and all the ideas the engineers suggested required some kind of contraption or mechanism which the venue did not have; but even if it did, we as a starting theater group couldn't have afforded anyway.

Walang Kawala

The budget, or lack of it, was the next hurdle we all had to face. Our ideals were becoming reality alright, but was also kicking us all in the butt towards show time.

Our play had by then been announced to all and sundry — si Auraeus pa! — but money had yet to come in. (Ah, a slogan to add to theater mantra: the show must go on.) Soon, we found ourselves pitching in our school allowances to feed people and ourselves. There were pages upon script pages to photocopy and place in nice folders; we needed pencils for rehearsal notes and rolls of masking tape to have on hand.

When stage construction time came, we had to purchase lumber, plywood and nails, feed the carpenters and pay them. Rehearsals, mostly held at Auraeus' house, meant feeding the actors and staff. Oh, did I mention that on top of the stage design, I was tasked to make the poster and the program, too? And we had to print those as well. It was a good thing our lead actor Paul Quiaño (as Garcin), fellow visual artist and CFA undergrad, was around to do the company logo.

Members' relatives as young as high school, neighbors, some friends and their relatives' friends pitched in although in reality we felt that as much as people were excited for our new theater group and the upcoming play (by then given the title Walang Kawala) and had a lot of goodwill to share, just as many wished we would never even premiere.

And there was pressure, real and perceived. Two months hence and we were obviously past the getting-to-know-you phases, past the play readings and analyses, the bashed egos, the hard physical falls and stage acrobatics. Of raised voices and tears of disappointment, of fatigue. No more offerings of theories by this time, no chasing of ideals, just some vice and habits picked up along the way.

The afternoon of the opening day, Auraeus called on actress Elaine Eleazar (Inez) to the exterior backstage balcony of the theater and played some notes on his melodica that Elaine had to memorize in minutes. It was her character's swan song, something which Elaine had been bugging Auraeus about throughout the rehearsals in the past months. So finally her song had been composed—just that afternoon. Darn. And I had 16 square feet of bare stage to cover using the just-arrived cans of paint so graciously donated by some of Elaine's friends. But black enamel paint! Enamel, as the label indicated, takes 24 hours to dry (I didn't have that much time). Paint we still did for what else could we do? At some point during the painting, there appeared some electric fans gathered from god knows where while some of those who hung around or paused for a break started fanning the painted areas of the stage with whatever they could get hold of—with folded newspapers, mostly.

That very same afternoon, Manny Barias who played The Doorman (and who, with Susan Morales, were actually our production sound crew), was reviewing for a very important pre-med subject in one corner. He came on short notice to play the role in place of Jess Acullador who was in grief over the loss of his father two nights before. Just then, too, Wena Basco, our company manager-cum-other lead (as Estelle), jubilant over finally securing permission from her brother, arrived with his ultra-large loudspeakers for us to use. Confidant-to-all Paul Morales, our choreographer, was at least patient enough to understand that he couldn't rehearse the dance on stage as areas were still being painted or hadn't yet dried.

Meanwhile, members Custer Deocaris and Bimbi Verdadero (production manager) were arguing with each other in the hall, mostly about philosophical matters while dragging and fixing the school chairs at the top of the amphitheater-like audience area; Ralph Galan was keeping cool and refused to be unfazed. Nini Matilac and Tere Jamias had just finished wiring up the lights. We were to open in 2 hours, just in time for the walang kamatayang pan de coco merienda from the UP Shopping Center.

We were all touched to have Tony Mabesa come by for a rain check, but not without leaving, heaving, in usual Mabesa-esque fashion upon finding the venue still in total disarray. Clint Ramos, refusing to be unfazed like Ralph, remained cool while putting on the actors' make-up and pinning the costumes that were being tried on for the first time. And thus began our communal worship to Darna's stone (step aside, Ding!).

After a round of prayers just seconds into opening—it was a "finished-or-not-finished-pass-your-papers!" moment—and scampering to hide in our respective places where mine was beneath the stage itself directly under the door bolt, someone softly called out in the dark: "aaaannnddd...blackout! Music!".

Original poem by Ralph Semino Galan

All the world's a stage
Rogelio Sicat's Walang Kawala, like the other Tropa productions that followed it, became some kind of a trailblazer for other student theater productions in UP and other schools to follow: productions such as the world premiere in Filipino of Karel Capek's R.U.R. (trans: Rogelio Sicat, for the UP Tropa Experimental Theater Co.), our version of Nick Pichay's poignant Uyayi ng Ulan and the premiere of Cris Martinez' Freshman; the restaging of Sicat's Moses, Moses and some original short plays written by the new members.

Also memorable were the staging of the original works I'bun (Child), Maikling Buhay ng Apoy (The Brief Life of Fire, later made into a short film by Aureaus), Sisa, Maria Clara and Salome as trilogy, and our first and only musical, Manhid, which achieved some kind of cult status. It was Manhid that strengthened the bond between members of a dorm-based band named Eraserheads which was internally on the verge of a break up prior to being part of the production as our nightly live band and in which the song "Kailan" was first played.

Much of our audience attendance, our marketing, our reputation and our notoriety—it still baffles us to this day what we were notorious about—were from word of mouth. Throughout the years in Tropa, we did not make piles of money but collected many good reviews, many a heartache, many life lessons and even more memories to cherish. "Beg, borrow or steal" was some kind of motto that guided us when we needed props or sets. No excuse was acceptable for absence during production because in theater, the only sufficient excuses were if "you're either dead or dying." We put in every ounce of blood, sweat and tears for the sake of the audiences who bought our tickets or lined up to watch our plays. Most times, it felt like coming to the point of wringing one dry once one committed to the ideals of theater.

Post-prod in the 90s
When it became clear that we had, as a collective, achieved something significant that touched our audiences was the time the majority of the senior Tropa members shifted attention back to studies although not after giving up some subjects and semesters in favor of keeping Tropa alive. Less than a decade and many a production since Walang Kawala, we knew and felt it was time to move on.

In the early 90s, Auraeus dabbled in short film direction after becoming a MOWELFUND scholar. Always, he relied on the ka-Tropas for artistic input. Our first major commercial work together, Auraeus and I, was doing the Huling El Bimbo MTV (music video) for what by then was the very successful band, the Eraserheads. And, as like before, with many ka-Tropas involved.

We've been talking about restaging some plays—of Manhid, in particular—but that may not happen anytime soon yet. Currently, many ka-Tropas are still working together in various projects or other, or help each other out in some way.

There may never be another Tropa in UP for a long time as we were born of the times and we drifted with the times but the spirit of oneness and being carriers of the flame are kept alive. Kind of like what Inez said to Garcin: "itanim mo ako sa iyong isipan at buhayin mo ako" (from Walang Kawala, trans: Sicat), Tropa lives on in our memories.
You see, what made Tropa, the Experimental Theater Company of UP, so atypical was the fact that only two members were actually theater majors: Auraeus and Paul. The other members were from other diverse disciplines: Math, Molecular Biology, Tourism, Fine Arts, Business, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, Philosophy, Humanities (now known as Art Studies) among others. The majority of Tropa's second-wave members were from Auraeus' (and Clint's) own alma mater, the Philippine Science High School.
...the Movie!

"Pisay is a beautiful film, simple and sophisticated, direct and campy, one that gets better and better as it goes along. From the evidence gathered, the praise is valid for Filipino cinema as a whole, which is undergoing something of a renaissance.”

~ Emmanuel Burdeau Cahiers Du Cinéma

(L-R: Winning in France: Auraeus Solito, EJ Jallorina, Claudine Najera,
Carl Barrameda and Hai Balbuena)

Cahiers du Cinéma is the most prestigious critic's group in the world. They have declared that Filipino cinema is on the verge of a renaissance. But a renaissance needs hard work and in order to reach this renaissance, Philippine Independent Cinema needs an audience.

Pisay is the latest film of Auraeus Solito who also directed internationally award-winning films Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros and Tuli.

Pisay recently won two awards in the 14th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema in France: The Grand Prix du Jury (Grand Prize of the International Jury) and the Prix du Public (Audience Prize).

Former Tropa members were an essential part of the production: Paul Morales (as executive producer), Erwin Navarro (line producer/Tropa actor and stage manager), Claudine Najera (film marketing, and appeared as the Geometry teacher/Tropa actress and artist), Wena Basco (as "Fanny"/Tropa actress and company manager), Carina Evangelista (as the SocSci teacher and Pisay soundtrack librettist/Tropa writer and Manhid co-librettist), Jobin Ballesteros (Pisay musical score) and bit roles by Elnora Ebillo and Ernest Mangulabnan, who, with husband Buddy Zabala, also set a Pisay song to music (/Tropa multi-taskers). Perhaps we shall have a company call on the opening night of Pisay's commercial run.

I join my ka-Tropas in asking for your support and help us reach the renaissance of Philippine Cinema.

Please watch Pisay the Movie.

Pisay will be shown February 20 –27 exclusively at the following SM theaters:
  • SM North Edsa Cinema 8
  • SM Megamall Cinema 9
  • SM Manila Cinema 4
  • SM Southmall
  • SM Fairview Cinema 6
  • SM San Lazaro Cinema

Read the review here. Trailer courtesy of direkmik Cahiers du Cinéma.

Added notes
  • On June 24, 2008, Pisay the Movie won the most number of awards (totaling eight) at the 5th Golden Screen Awards. These are:
      Best Motion Picture (Drama)
      Best Director (Solito)
      Best Original Screenplay (Henry Graheda)
      Best Supporting Actress (Drama, Musical or Comedy) for Eugene Domingo
      Best Original Song (“Ang Puso Kong Musmos”) written by Carina Evangelista, Buddy Zabala and Ernest Mangulabnan
      Best Editing (Mikael Angelo Pastrano and Kanakan Balintagos)
      Best Production Design (Martin Masadao, Regie Regalado, Dante Garcia and Endi Balbueno)
      Best Musical Score (Vincent de Jesus and Jobin Ballesteros)
  • On Aug. 30, 2008, the Eraserheads finally performed a one-night reunion concert at the Bonifacio Global City Open-grounds. Read about it here.

  • ADDED Oct 20, 2009: Some important MANHID notes related to commenter "daguob"'s below re the link he provided to the video of the favorite cult musicale staged in UP:
  • The character of "Muradugo" was played by livewire Michelle Reyes as seen in the video;
  • The video was shot and uploaded by Rodel Basco, the brother of lead actress Wena Basco;
  • The hooded actor in the scene is no other than the musicale's playwright and song libbrettist, Aureaus Solito;
  • Bandmaster and musical director was Vincent De Jesus, currently an award-winning film and television scorer and composer.
  • You can watch the scene mentioned by "daguob" in the comments below, as well as Rodel Basco's priceless footages of the musicale here.
    Thank you Erwin (daguob) and Rodel.


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