“Theater is, of course, a reflection of life. Maybe we have to improve life before we can hope to improve theater.” –William Ralph Inge
If theater is a reflection of life, then Philippine theater is a mirror of this nation’s struggles, triumphs, and existence. According to noted historian, Doreen Fernandez, the times have always shaped Philippine theater, even in determining its types and forms.
Philippine theater has constantly been classified as follows: the indigenous with mimetic performances and rituals; Spanish-influenced with religious plays, Komedya, Sinakulo, Zarzwela; American occupation plays with seditious plays, Sarswela, Vaudeville and English plays; and those that belong to the contemporary period with protest, nationalist and social plays, and the importations and translations. In retrospect, this categorization isn’t surprising. After all, colonization is the one experience almost all Filipinos have in common.
But, what really is Philippine theater?
According to Dr. Apolonio Chua of the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature in UP Diliman, there has long been a Philippine theater identity reflected through the many types of theater in the Philippines that don’t have any foreign influence or were not modeled after western styles.
But more than plays and theater types that are “purely” Filipino, Dr. Glecy Atienza from the same department as Chua’s, dug deeper in the concept of “pag-aangkop” and “pag-aangkin.” According to her, even though the plays showcased in Philippine theaters were originally written by foreigners or have western origins, they were appropriated, adjusted, adapted and interpreted to suit the context of Philippine society. This is achieved in terms of language, setting, and designs, among many others. With this, it can be concluded that Philippine theater is not merely composed of a vast array of imitations just like what some people would claim.
Dr. Atienza’s statements assert that Philippine theater is a living engagement with transformative qualities that is part of the whole process of experience.
From the perspective of an acclaimed director and playwright, Dr. Anton Juan, from the Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts, theater must be seen beyond structuralism or the taxonomy in language. Behind it are sounds that are migrated into ideologies. These ideologies were formed from our own memories. Hence, theater reveals the meanings of memories of the unseen world. In simpler terms, the theater practitioners’ duty is to show the reality to the people. That’s why for Dr. Juan, as long as his works embody the aspirations, will and memory of the Filipino people, he is doing Philippine theater.
To sum it all up, though Filipino identity is another complex story in itself, (as in Nicanor Tiongson’s words: Filipinos lack cultural identity and core tradition as a given product of history that no one can change), Philippine theater identity is anchored in Filipino identity which is altogether rooted in the country’s historical experiences and present realities. Hence, it stands on its own, for its own. It need not be compared to other countries for they also have their own pasts and presents.
Notwithstanding being able to pinpoint Philippine theater identity, an imminent need for proper articulation through documentation presents itself. And this is probably one of the toughest problems that contemporary Philippine theater face–the lack of scholars and practitioners to research and write about the country’s theater industry in an effort to carry on the pursuit of its identity. And this very quest for the elusive self has ever molded Philippine theater to go on in spite of.~