A new generation finds its voice in protest theater

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"Bantayog" is a performance about our country's politics and history. Through it, the students of the theater group Dulaang Sipat Lawin, from the Philippine High School for the Arts, are taking classic martial law plays as inspiration, and making new works of their own. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines) — They could have been staging Shakespeare. Instead, this year’s batch of theater students from the Philippine High School for the Arts, aged 12 to 18, take on the difficult task of protest in a post-truth world.

“A lot of our students [were] troubled and they don't know what to believe in,” explained their directing and company instructor J.K. Anicoche. “They didn't know how to make sense of [things] ... their immediate reality is na-inaugurate si Trump, tapos may issues of extrajudicial killings, and biglang nabago 'yung history na tinuturo sa kanila.”

The play, Anicoche said, was their way of processing the political turmoil going on around them. Called “Bantayog,” it was staged this weekend at the Cultural Center of the Philippines as their final recital this school year.

Its first act features skits from plays written in the era of martial law, such as excerpts from Chris Millado’s “Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major,” Rolando Tinio’s “May Katwiran ang Katwiran,” and “Pragres,” adapted from the 1980 short story by F. Sionil Jose. The second act is composed of arrangements made by the students themselves, as they draw from social media and field work with victims of martial law.

Imelda Marcos was, to her credit, the driving force behind both the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Philippine High School for the Arts. Written on a plaque in the school is an entry that says the school was dedicated to the pursuit of “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” 

With excellent acting, wry humor, and dark undertones, the students of Dulaang Sipat Lawin subvert the medium that the Marcoses patronized, the very one they used to paint the Philippines and their lives as idyllic under their reign. True art, they prove, knows no utang na loob — no masters but the truth.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Anicoche to discuss preparations for the play, a community-based performance process, and truth-telling through theater.

Photo-1.jpg J.K. Anicoche is Dulaang Sipat Lawin's directing and company instructor. "Bantayog," he says, was the students' "way of processing the political turmoil going on around them." Photo by JL JAVIER

How did the concept for the play come about?

Every year, may culminating activity kami. This year medyo kakaiba siya, dahil nagsimula 'yung issue about Marcos ... Ang Philippine High School for the Arts ay isa sa mga initiatives ni Imelda Marcos, sabay ng CCP. As young artists, we are responding to the idea [of what] the importance of theater [is] now, in the age of historical revisionism. How do they make sense of the present in the age of Trump, in the age of our new president? Through performance, how do they make sense of the present using narratives of the past?

Philippine theater [has a] history of protest theater, [of] socially engaged performances. Powerful tool siya during martial law because rine-reveal din niya ang maraming injustices ng society sa iba't-ibang sectors. So maraming mga iba't-ibang genre, iba-ibang style ng theater performances from the streets to the blackbox theaters....

After 30 years, how should we do theater now? So we give homage, tribute to all the theater artists — theater makers na ang nag-strive sa freedom of expression, na tumulong doon sa pag-spark ng revolution after martial law....

You cannot invalidate stories of actual people ... So 'yun 'yung tanong namin: Can we empathize more if you go experience it sa performance, more than being online? Ano ba 'yung power ng theater? Why is it important for young theater makers to interview, investigate, and find a voice?

Through performance, we hope that they can find a voice. Kawawa ang youth madalas, kasi sila 'yung sinasabihan lagi na ... hindi kayo nabuhay noong martial law, you don't know anything. But one thing's for sure: at least in performance ... totoo at valid ang stories ng mga tao, that we should empathize with a lot of people, [and] may power 'yung performance to embody history, or to present and represent, and at the same time to make people think about our present so that we know what to do with our future.

How are the kids handling the [project]?

The kids come from different backgrounds, so iba-iba din mga political beliefs ng mga families nilamay mga families talaga na loyal ... Tinutulungan din namin 'yung mga bata na mahanap 'yung iba't ibang layers of truth. So guided din 'yung approach doon sa research nila … [There's a] challenge for them to dive deeper, watch videos and really understand what it's about … Self-reflexive din 'yung process ng mga bata.

Photo-7.jpg The Philippine High School for the Arts was one of Imelda Marcos' initiatives. "As much as they say na project ito ni Imelda in the past, they acknowledge the fact na taxes din siya ng taong bayan," says Anicoche." So we have to serve the people, the audiences." Photo by JL JAVIER

Who is the intended audience of the play?

We're looking at students their age. Our actors are from 12 years old to 18 years old. Because they are privileged with this kind of education, na iskolar sila ng bayan, itong palabas na ito, para sa bayan.

As much as they say na project ito ni Imelda in the past, they acknowledge the fact na taxes din siya ng taong bayan. So we have to serve the people, the audiences. We hope that the youth ... makapanood din and be empowered to speak about what they think should be just, what they think should be true, and what they think should be right.

Sana mga ka-edad nila, at the same time iba-ibang tao from different communities. We're also inviting theater companies na nag-present nito some 30 years ago. Para siyang passing of the torch in a sense — okay, so ano na ang gagawin ng generation [of theater-makers] na ito?

I'm glad you brought that up that CCP and PHSA were Imelda's projects. Some artists may be hesitant to comment on the Marcoses and historical revisionism because the Marcoses did a lot for the arts. There seems to be that tension. What's your comment on that, and what are the kids making of it?

It's in the performance. We acknowledge that [even if it was] founded by Imelda, pera siya ng taong-bayan. Buwis siya ng taong-bayan. We don't serve the government, we serve the people. Kailangan critical din tayo sa mga leaders natin. Kailangan natin i-acknowledge anong magandang points ang nagawa nila, kung ano ‘yung abuses na ginawa nila sa maraming mga tao.

So ine-encourage ‘yung ganung pagiging critical, lalo na sa mga artists kasi ang lakas talaga ng power [nila]. Sila 'yung nagko-communicate ng sensibilities, sentiments, and ang sinasabi nilang truth. Sila ang nakaka-touch sa hearts ng maraming mga audiences.

So ethical din ang practice ng pagiging artist. Artist as a social being — kung paano maging isang mabuting citizen ... not just to think of oneself, but to think of fellow Filipinos ... ‘Yung injustice sa isa, may effect din sa freedoms natin.

We have to make a stand. How do we train the next generation of younger artists, and how do we give them power and voice to forge ahead? Eventually, po-protektahan din nila ang freedom na pinaglaban ng maraming artists, maraming activists at leaders in the past.

Photo-4.jpg With excellent acting, wry humor, and dark undertones, the students of Dulaang Sipat Lawin subvert the medium that the Marcoses patronized, the very one they used to paint the Philippines and their lives as idyllic under their reign. Photo by JL JAVIER

Being in the internet age ... in a way, may freedom of expression din na binabatikos online. You mentioned the kids [were] bullied online. In a scenario like this, how has the role of artist as a social being changed?

I think we have to be very well-informed. So as artists, dapat malawak din ang body of knowledge mo. So 'yun din ang tinuturo sa mga bata, na makita ang mga pros and cons. At the same time, one thing is for sure: no one can invalidate the suffering of real people. Lalo na kapag you encounter them in interviews. Ine-expose din sila na ito ang firsthand experience. And then you develop a sense of empathy, and then you hope through your craft, you become a voice for the voiceless, you embody those who cannot be upfront, those who cannot come out in the open.

Yung injustice sa isa, may effect din sa freedoms natin.

‘Yung mga younger artists, iba din how they are … dealing with technology — they are using it to their advantage. Sinasabi ... the revolution will not be tweeted 10 years ago, but mas malaki ang participation ngayon ng youth. But hopefully, from participation, ang next question is: ano 'yung magiging collective action?

The theater is a space where we can come together. It's a shared space, a shared time, shared stories, shared histories. It's still a very powerful tool where we can question ano 'yung tama, ano 'yung mali.

Hindi naman blindsided 'yung mga bata in terms of 'Ito lang dapat ang tama.' So ‘yun din, paano ka magwe-weigh ng totoo in the age of post-truth? May mga research din sila on that. Of course, dahil tayong nakapag-aral, tayo ang may opportunity, tayo ang may tools, tayo ang may instruments, ‘yung power namin wala siguro online, but it's on the ground, with real people experiencing stories together.

Photo-12.jpg "Through performance, we hope that they can find a voice," says Anicoche. "Kawawa ang youth madalas, kasi sila yung sinasabihan lagi na ... hindi kayo nabuhay noong martial law, you don't know anything. But one thing's for sure: at least in performance ... totoo at valid ang stories ng mga tao." Photo by JL JAVIER

How would you know that the play is successful? What do you want the audience to take away from it?

At the end of the day, I think for our artists ... 'yung importanteng takeaway nila is they feel like through performance they can have a voice in society and by having that power, merong responsibility. If there is a dissent or merong discussions or merong pagtatalo, then maybe na-achieve namin 'yung gusto naming ma-achieve. Or kapag meron namang mas nag-empathize lalo and nag-promise to do their own part when they leave the theater, to be more engaged in society, dealing with these events, baka na-achieve natin 'yun.

We're hoping that they take away something, they feel more empowered. At least they know that there's a next generation of artists — alam na may ganitong capacities, at may power din, and they are going to work with communities, not just inside the theater or the galleries … Kung merong mag-react, mag-respond, siguro na-achieve din natin yan because [here], instead of providing escape, you are actually confronting realities, and maybe together we can think of how we [can] move forward.