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Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ensemble Heroes

I grew up in theater. From grade school to high school all the way to college, I chose theater as my extra-curricular activity. I kept at it even though I knew I was not going to do theater full-time after I graduated. I did theater because I loved it. And I still do.

When I was in Basic Advertising, our chairman (the late) Mr. Antonio Mercado said he always had a bias for hiring those who have had theater experience, because he felt that theater teaches important and practical lessons that people can use in work and in life after college—teamwork, excellence, pride in one’s work, creativity, flexibility and improvisation, to name a few.

Dr. Ricardo Abad, the moderator of Tanghalang Ateneo, recently wrote a piece about Ateneo theater; specifically, the students who do theater. These students do it for the love of, because there is no monetary compensation. They don’t do it for a living; they do it because it makes them feel alive.

Reading it brought back so many fond memories. But more than that, Dr. Abad was able to articulate theater’s social nature and its heroic demands.

* * * * *

by Ricardo G. Abad
(posted with permission from the author)

Addressing the Ateneo de Manila’s graduating class of 2009, Chris Lowney says that leaders aren’t always those persons who take charge, command great wealth, or appear often on television. Leaders, he argues, can be anyone – you or I, a student or teacher, a child or parent, an employee or employer – any person who can “move out into the world to find ever new ways to construct the edifice, cultivate the garden, and paint that masterpiece that God is unfolding in your life.” Lux in Domino. Light in the Lord. Leaders are women and men who light the way forward for others.

Heroes are leaders too. They are not always those persons who are endowed with power, possessions, or popularity. They are also persons who lead ordinary and unspectacular lives. And they are also men and women who light the way forward for others. But not all leaders are heroes. What sets heroes apart is the way they shine that light against overwhelming odds, many times at great risk to life and limb, and for a cause infinitely greater than themselves.

My mind draws to these kinds of local heroes – unknown, unspectacular, unsung.

I recall, most fondly, the many students who kept Ateneo theater alive since I joined Tanghalang Ateneo twenty-five years ago. These students, working onstage and offstage, are not your high-profile Ateneans – like the Sanggunian officer, for example, or the varsity athlete, the champion debater, the Guidon editor, or the consistent Dean’s Lister. They stand on the average side of academics, unsure of what they’ll do after college, but wishing that whatever work they do later will still allow them to do theater. They’re not poor but are often short of cash. They’re not professionals but knowledgeable about many things. They’re not lunatics but act screwy during cast parties. Several say that their parents aren’t too keen about their involvement in the theater; their parents, the students say, fear that too much theater jeopardizes their children’s chances to secure well-paying jobs, endangers their grades, or distort their sexual preference. Several add that the Administration, not understanding what it takes to do theater, makes miniscule improvements on available venues and imposes too many rules. They also claim that the absence of an honest-to-goodness theater that they can call their own shows how little value is placed on what they consider a vital part of their college life. The gripes echo year after year.

But the gripes recede when a production’s afoot. Deadlines are made, and students put in the hours. There’s a set to build and paint, lights to wire, props to construct, costumes to sew, materials to buy from Divisoria or Kamuning, and for actors, lines and movement to memorize. Other members are called to help but often the task is left to the few, the heroic ones, who’ll finish the work on time. Like the two students who stayed up with me most of the night to make a gigantic mask for a Shakespeare play. Like the student who was in charge of sponsorships: she went to her parents’ bowling league tournament one night and passed a hat, asking donations from bowlers and their families. She collected twenty thousand pesos that night.

The job gets tougher on tours. Working under battle conditions, and in unfamiliar venues, and after long bus rides, the students set up the stage late into the night and groggily run a show the next morning to thousands of students. Beyond stage work is social work, like giving confidence-building and drama workshops to the public high school students of Pathways every summer – a project that always elicits joy despite the long hours of work.

These students are not paid for their labor. Nor are they required to put in long hours as a requirement for graduation. But they continue to sweat, slog, and struggle. Academic obligations – a midterm exam, long test, or paper – often intrude, but do not deter them from plowing through, knowing that the show will flop if they don’t cut their share of the work. So they manage their time as best they can, if they ever do, and leap into the fray. Many, happily, survive. Rarely with a grade of A, but they pass. Hallelujah!

Some risk their health. Many spend sleepless nights to finish a script, loop music, complete a report, design a poster, compose letters, layout the playbill, or edit a video. Several get sick before a performance. But a flu, vertigo, sore throat, severe cold, or abdominal pain isn’t enough to prevent these actors from stepping onstage and giving it all. One slipped a disk in the middle of a scene, grimacing in pain on his exit; he returned onstage after intermission with a brace around his waist. Another actor, I learned after a show, stepped on a stray nail backstage just before his entrance. Biting his tongue, he entered the scene, hobbling his way through the final dance sequence. All got well, praise God, thanks to immediate treatment after the show. But the real cure came from a surge of dedication that numbed the pain, pushed up the energy, and restored the humors. I suspect basketball players injured on the hard court, and rising to play again, experience something similar.

But like winning basketball teams, the heroism of the theater does not rest on one person. Theater is a supremely collaborative act and the grind to transform the mundane to the magical requires the intense dedication of a collective – the heroism of the ensemble. That heroism is what makes an opening night special: it’s the triumph of many heroic deeds that took place from the first day of rehearsal to the minute before the opening show. It’s an occasion deserving of revelry, hugs, and thanksgiving.

And that’s why any achievement I’ve made as director isn’t mine alone to keep. And I’m sure the Ateneo directors before me – Irwin, Reuter, Pagsanghan, Tinio, and Saludo to name some – feel the same way. We wouldn’t be around were it not for the heroism of students who helped us to mount one production after another, year after year. And this collective heroism doesn’t happen only in Tanghalang Ateneo. It’s the same guts and glory scene in Entablado, Blue Repertory, Dulaang Sibol, Teatro Bagong Tao, and the Ateneo Children’s Theater. And I’m certain it’s the same story with drama companies of Ateneo’s past –the salon de actos of Intramuros, the Ateneo Dramatics Guild of Padre Faura, and the Ateneo Players Theater, the Ateneo Experimental Theater, the Ateneo Playhouse, and the Teatro Uno Dos Tres of Loyola Heights. For 150 years, the Ateneo de Manila University has kept the theater alive through two colonial regimes, the Commonwealth Period, the Japanese Occupation, Independence and right through the present covering martial law, EDSA, Manny Pacquiao, and the Maguindanao Massacre. And who kept it going? The students of course, the heroes of the theater: the heroism of the ensemble runs across the University’s history, kicking alive in the Ateneo even before there was basketball!

In his book Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney said that the Jesuits (and he does not mean specific Jesuits but the collective, the Society of Jesus) did not become successful leaders (and heroes too!) simply by committing themselves to religious beliefs but by the way they lived and worked. “And their way of living,” Lowney adds, “holds value for everyone, whatever his or her creed.” That’s the way the heroism of the theater ensemble survived in the Ateneo since the Escuela Municipal opened in 1859. By living and working in the theater, Ateneo theater artists of one generation inspired the next generation of theater artists to lose oneself to a greater and most fulfilling cause. That heroism is infectious and the bug still bites today.

Lowney has just ended his commencement speech, and it was my turn as master of ceremonies to step into the podium to announce the next number of the program. As I did so, I looked at the faces of the graduating class, trying to spot the faces of my theater heroes whom I had the joy of working with during the last four years. I saw a few and saluted them with my heart. I walked down from the hill of that graduation stage, the Ateneo hymn reverberating around me, and headed to a drinking place in Katipunan where younger Ateneo theater artists, soon to be full-pledged heroes, sat with a bucket of beer before them, waiting for me to reveal my plans for the next season and their place in the scheme of things.

The bug still bites, I told you.

(Written January 2010 for a forthcoming publication on Ateneo Heroes, a book prepared in honor of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Sesquicentennial Year. The book will be launched on Tuesday, November 30, 5pm at the Leong Auditorium.)

(Photo taken from Facebook.)


polemic said...


gibbs cadiz said...

hooray for these true heroes! :)

Guyrony said...

Admiration, selfless and driven...

These qualities should always be inculcated.

Bravo to the heroes indeed!

the barefoot baklesa said...

nothing but Ricky Abad can stir my soul in a day like this when the "vampires" suck out all the creativity in the air...

hey joel, remember the days when we used to go on tour during the walang camatayan days of MIRANDOLINA? at the most impossible of venues with layer upon layer of those baroque costumes... ah such memories... i have counted years since i was last a costume master, now i'm a costume slave...bwahaha