Where ‘virgin’ playwrights go to keep Philippine theater alive

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In "Love Team," an actor (Andrei Vegas, left) attempts to convince his friend (Alex Yasuda) to become his "love team" partner in a quest for fame, a conversation that leads them both to unforeseen paths. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It ends and begins with the submissions.

For more than a decade, the Virgin Lab Fest (VLF), the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ annual festival for “unpublished, unstaged, untested and untried” dramatic productions, has proven itself to be the place for playwrights to experiment with and explore the limits of their craft.

This year (the festival’s 13th), the theme is “Wagas,” which according to festival director Tuxqs Rutaquio is meant to dispel any connotations of the number being unlucky. “How do you contrast that?” he says. “I was thinking about the tattoo. [How it lasts] forever. Wagas talaga ‘yun. So I connected it to that image.” He adds: “It’s really about the endless possibility of writing and ideas. It has to be pure. There’s something in the text na umaangat ‘yung whatever it is na gustong sabihin ng playwright to the audience.”

virgin lab fest-5.jpg Writer Oggie Arcenas (second from left) sits and watches as his play "Love Team" is rehearsed. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Such “somethings” can be seen in plays like Maynard Manansala and U.Z. Eliserio’s “Hindi Ako si Darna,” about an aging superhero who may actually be an anti-hero, detailing her (mis)adventures in love and her relationships with her family and her mortal enemy. In Sari Saysay’s “Ang Bata sa Bus Stop,” a man who has decided to leave a clergy encounters a child who himself wants to be a priest, and a discussion on religion, discontent, and the idea of home ensues.

And then there’s Adrian Ho’s “Sincerity Bikers’ Club,” both true to the common man and painfully politically timely, which concerns itself with issues regarding the war on drugs and extrajudicial killings.

In the beginning, Rutaquio shares, “Wala kaming audience. At all!” If a play found itself without an audience, the cast and crew from the other plays would come over and watch to fill the seats. “Parang magkaka-klase rin kami.”

Through word of mouth, VLF has since gained something of a cult following, not just of audiences, but of “virgin” writers, actors, and directors as well, who have made joining the festival an item to cross off their bucket list.

virgin lab fest -10.jpg According to festival director Tuxqs Rutaquio, the creatives and thespians that make up the VLF community have become a family. "Parang mga anak-anakan na namin sila," he says of the younger actors and crew members. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

“Nakakatuwa,” Rutaquio says. “It’s the only festival na nagsasama-sama lahat ng theater companies. Iba-iba sila ng pinanggalingan, pero the same ‘yung passion nila for creating art.”

When he came in as festival director, Rutaquio wanted to bring something new to the table and to do away with the idea that the festival was too exclusive to theater artists. He decided to hire film directors who wanted to try theater directing: Lawrence Fajardo, Erik Matti, Dennis Marasigan, and Jade Castro, to name a few.

Carlitos Siguion-Reyna directs Dingdong Novenario’s “Nothing But Dreams,” which Rutaquio says appealed to the local legend of cinema because it revolves around a dysfunctional family. “Iba rin ‘yung perspective nila, eh,” Rutaquio says of the film-turned-theater directors. “And I just guide them, kasi minsan hindi nila alam ‘yung jargon. Biglang ‘lights-camera-action.’ Ay, hindi,” he laughs, “theater po ito! Walang camera.”

“Nakakatuwa,” festival director Tuxqs Rutaquio says. “It’s the only festival na nagsasama-sama lahat ng theater companies. Iba-iba sila ng pinanggalingan, pero the same ‘yung passion nila for creating art.”

There are, however, stages, dressing rooms, props, and set pieces. Backstage at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, the microcosm of thespians and creatives that makes up VLF is beginning to gear up for the second round of performances for the day.

The art department puts finishing touches of paint on backgrounds. Actors arrive in street clothes and begin to change into their costumes, review their lines. Stage managers scurry here and there, doing their darnedest to make sure not a single thing goes wrong. And the playwrights sit back and watch as the products of their imagination become tangible realities. Everyone is very involved, and everyone is in their element. 

This year’s festival garnered 192 submissions of one-act plays, 12 of which were selected to be workshopped and performed as part of the main platform, held at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino. In addition, audiences can also watch three productions from the previous year in the “Revisited” set at Tanghalang Huseng Batute and staged readings of five plays at Tanghalang Amado V. Hernandez, as well as a showcase of new plays written as part of VLF’s two-week writing fellowship program.

With less than 10 percent of submissions making the cut for the festival, what, then, makes a play stand out?

virgin lab dest diptych-3.jpg The prop room at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino holds everything from full costumes to the bikes from "Sincerity Bikers' Club." Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

“It really depends on the material,” says Rutaquio. “Wala kaming particular criteria, but parati naming pinag-uusapan ang structure.” He also lists the theme, character development, the work’s relevance, the writing itself, and the use of language (especially for regional works that use dialects) as important factors.

What they’re looking for, to put it plainly, are brave new works. “‘Yung talagang mapapa-nganga ka dahil, ‘Ano ‘yan?’” The name of the festival itself — Virgin — immediately makes it clear that it’s meant to be a breeding ground for new talent. “That’s why I always love reading all the entries,” Rutaquio says. “Kasi nga nava-validate ‘yung anong iniisip ngayon ng mga kabataan as opposed to ano ngayon ang iniisip ng mga matanda, the veterans, from the psyche to the values.”

“It’s always a playwright’s festival,” Rutaquio declares. He calls it Philippine theater’s contribution to literature, and observes that the festival has helped acknowledge the value of playwriting in the country. These plays win Palanca Awards. They go on to be performed by starry-eyed students in universities.

virgin lab fest diptych-2.jpg All actors share a communal dressing room, which underscores the importance of community during VLF. Set pieces for all 12 plays are stored in one room and are moved on rotation for every performance. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

virgin lab fest diptych-1.jpg It's important to everyone involved in the Virgin Lab Fest, whether they're stage managers, directors, actors, or playwrights, that every performance runs smoothly. Finishing touches are made to props and set pieces and actors run lines so that everything goes by without a hitch. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

It’s a sign, according to Rutaquio, that the art is very much alive, and he can see it in the youth in particular. “Nagkakaroon sila ng pagkamulat sa sining ng pagsusulat,” he says, adding that this is the purpose of the festival’s writing fellowship program: to become a hub for writers, to usher in a new batch of emerging playwrights. Someday, he muses, if all goes well, there may even be a playwriting school for developing scripts year-round. “Industry talaga siya.” 

Tonight’s performances are getting closer and closer. Actors Alex Yasuda and Andrei Vegas take their many cues onstage, spouting lines casually in a run-through of Oggie Arcenas’ “Love Team,” a commentary on Pinoy pop culture and the LGBT’s place in it, wherein an actor attempts to convince his friend to become his “love team” partner. Yasuda makes sudden movements, jumping from one part of the stage to the next. Dropping character, Vegas asks, “Anong ginagawa mo?” Yasuda shrugs. “Fini-feel ko lang ‘yung stage.” And they begin again. 

Actors and directors join the festival not out of a desire for recognition or validation. They do it, according to Rutaquio, out of passion, and faith. “I saw that they believe in the plays,” he recalls. “Kahit hindi pa nila nababasa, [they say], ‘Sige, let’s work on it.’ In the end, it’s always the output, it’s always the piece that the audience sees onstage. Wala nang ego-ego.”