Can the theater industry survive in the ‘new normal’?

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Theater artists keep their spirits up by shifting the medium of storytelling from onstage to online. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Back in March, a mass cancellation of events, including theater productions with months' worth of preparation, ensued due to the spread of coronavirus in the Philippines. When the community quarantine was declared, at least 20 professional and collegiate theater productions were indefinitely postponed. Some shows like Repertory Philippines’ “Anna in the Tropics” and Atlantis Theatrical’s “The Band’s Visit” were forced to close before they even got the chance to open.

With jobs that rely on live performances, thousands of theater professionals have suddenly found themselves without any source of income. Performers, designers, production staff, and technical crew alike had no means of earning money during a time of crisis. Without projects in the foreseeable future, they are left vulnerable.

Keeping the industry alive over the internet

As the pandemic continues to devastate the country, other events in the following months are left to either be cancelled or postponed. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) has just announced that all the resident companies’ seasons are officially cancelled for the rest of the year. All ballet performances, live concerts, and theatre productions are affected.

Theater artists keep their spirits up by shifting the medium of storytelling from onstage to online. These past few months, a broader Filipino audience was exposed to local plays and musicals, witnessing a fraction of the big world of Philippine theater. Several theater groups have streamed performances, uploaded entire shows, or performed staged readings online. This includes the CCP, which has recently strengthened its digital presence on social media and YouTube to offer cultural performances to a larger Filipino audience.

A big contributor to this progress is the Open House fundraising project, which was established in March to help displaced theater practitioners and provide financial assistance to qualified beneficiaries. In coordination with various theater groups and artists, Open House has been organizing round table discussions, facilitating online workshops, and streaming different performances, through which they were able to reach their goal of raising one million pesos last May 7.

Earlier this month, Full House Theater Company briefly released “Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Musical,” perhaps the most popular out of all theater shows made available for public viewing as it garnered 7 million views on YouTube.

Some groups have also started to produce entirely digital performances, making good use of both limits and advantages of online platforms. Last May 6, Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident drama company of the CCP, premiered "Lolo Doc," the first in the series of “monovlogs,” or monologues in a form of a vlog. A tribute to frontliners during this global health crisis, the idea was developed with multi-awarded playwright Layeta Bucoy. The small-scale production's second installment, entitled “Lola Doc,” will premiere on May 21, featuring Nora Aunor as the titular role.

The Virgin Labfest, a theater festival also under the CCP, will be held on a virtual stage for the first time in its 15-year run. According to JK Anicoche, this year's festival director and curator, the decision of pushing through with the event “feels like a moral responsibility” when it comes to telling essential stories that are crucial to be heard.

When all of the world’s no longer a stage, technology provides another avenue for theater artists to perform. “To push through with creating performances, even on a digital platform, will somehow provide sustenance for our spiritual and our collective mental wellness. There is comfort and strength in togetherness,” Anicoche says.

He believes that VLF 2020 may be the first festival in the country, and possibly the world, to be held purely on a digital platform from the call for submissions until the performances. According to him, the virtual stage does not have to be an alternative to live viewing. Instead, it can be utilized as an extension of storytelling.

Dealing with pre-production online makes them feel as if they are “pioneering a new festival all over again” as roles are redefined and they struggle with slow internet connections. For this, they have a “virtual tech support team” to help directors and stage managers with the challenges that come with the platform shift.

Moving forward in a post-pandemic world

The pandemic can permanently change the performing arts industry in terms of how productions are mounted. Social distancing just doesn’t happen in theatre as every step of the process will always involve being in close proximity to so many people. If it becomes the new norm, the theatre community may take an even longer time to recover before coming back to the theaters.

In an environment that requires close contact, meetings, auditions, and rehearsals may change drastically. This may mean casting more understudies and swings, routinely disinfecting props and costumes more than usual, and strictly assigning personal headsets for the crew. Will an entire theater company have to isolate throughout the whole process? These changes may be radical, but such measures have to be considered as possible scenarios.

The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of theater practitioners. As freelancers that aren’t tied down to one company, they do not have government-mandated benefits that can assist them in times like these. Anicoche suggests institutionalizing unions and establishing culture crisis healthcare and disaster funds.

Still, it is remarkable how theater continues to attract interest even during a global health crisis, which just illustrates the value of the craft and the unwavering passion of artists.

“In times of uncertainty, it has always been the theater's duty to create a community of people providing comfort and support to each other,” Anichoche says. When the theater doors open again, the community hopes that the public will show their support by watching more live shows.

American author John Steinbeck wrote about the industry: “The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” The Philippine theater industry is a living testimony to how much truth the quote carries. At the end of the day, with storytelling at its core, theater has the capability to endure even the hardest of times.