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The millennial community theater: A necessary forum and rebellion
Angelo E. Aurelio

BATA, KALYE, MAKATA -- The award-winning cast of BAKATA (Bata, Kalye, Makata) or Battle of Street Poets musical is made possible by initiatives that focus on the strengths of children in hard conditions, who also want to tell their stories. -- Photos courtesy of TIU Theater
Legendary performance artist Kidlat Tahimik tells us visceral stories and doesn’t make plays. He is the play. A revered rebel like the elusive Rene Aquitania, Kidlat embodies an anomaly within the linear course of Philippine art history, necessary to halt an entire new generation of young performance artists, marching towards a certain pitfall of abysmal formula narratives.

The constant struggle of finding one’s identity and purpose is what devoted me to stories and storytelling, even had it as full time profession, if not obsession. I could have been a policeman if I haven’t learned about the kumaw as a child. This is a monstrous figure in the guise of a police officer who kidnaps and sells children to bridge contractors, to be punctured and blood drained as offering before inaugurating construction works and to ensure longevity of government road projects. I still wonder if kumaws are still around. Have they evolved in the same manner as storytellers took different shapes and forms?

Storytelling incises all sentient beings. To get paid for it is both daunting and rewarding. We evolve with our personal narratives. We need to be reminded and be constantly told about our capacities to fear, hope, revolt, compromise, and love as if our bodies crave for stories like we need nourishment, clothing, intimacy, and soul salvation. Maybe this is why some of us binge on books, music, Netflix, words of preachers and priests and stand on cue at confession booths on Black Saturdays, why we stay late at old rustic Chinese eateries, sipping bitter coffee with that loyal Leo who tells us they’ve had it worse; why we drink gin tonic until our skins say we need to rehydrate, until our hearts compel us to confess our unrequited love. Why tell the world of our outfits of the day, or like, laugh, heart, thumbs up, anger about stories on social media, fake news or not. While we all have different means to express the human experience like we have different kitchen knives and calibrated guns to take the bull down, I sometimes get lucky to have the stage t o show the world just how itchy stretch marks can be and how convenient for an expecting mother to give birth inside prison cells, all despite the nine stages of hell that await.

I grew up in a place along Marcos Highway called Chaparral. I always wondered what’s happening behind those neon light gilded doorways. If you want to know more of this place, ask your beer-loving Uncles and Aunties of Baguio. If you are an early Baguio millennial, you might have witnessed the last of its days. If your parents are from Baguio City, they may have slayed the wood parquet dance floor at the Celebrity Disco Club (if they are into that ‘80s night fever thing) or may even have witnessed the full glory of the then-young supple muses bathing onstage at the Wet and Wild Room (again, if they are into that thing). I haven’t seen any of these performan-ces. I wish I had. It was closed during the early ‘90s for what it can only be reasoned as “For the greater glory of God.” I knocked yet never saw what’s behind those heavenly neon gilded doors.

I began an active campaign as facilitator for community theater work for an environment conservation organization, the Cordillera Green Network (CGN) in 2012. The network has supported and exposed many community-based artists in international art networks, especially in Japan. I have no words to describe how exciting this journey was. Those memories had to be resurrected on a separate book.

The process and performances we created with CGN and the Aanak di Kabiligan (Children of the Mountains) Theater Group have armed me with the agility, instinct, and venom as a community performance maker, to put it simply. We rooted ourselves firmly with the more essential aspects of performance, to culture and community, and to humanity. With important devices gathered from the scholarship at the Center for Culture and the Arts of Saint Louis University, I and some Baguio colleagues like Tara Natividad intended to expand the reach of our community theater work in Manila. We began creating theater for the children of Payatas dumpsite and Smokey Mountain under a foundation started by filmmaker and veteran journalist Toshihiko Uriu. Manila, like what many young artists from Baguio feel, has an undercurrent of intimidating energy sensitive to promdis (people of the provinces). But one can always make use of the promdi’s fresh eyes on things that the everyday Manila artists don’t see anymore, or has even become numb about.

We focused on the strengths of the children living in these harsh conditions. I have worked with young people in the Cordillera; they should be no different from children in the slums, in souls and dreams, but the mountains here aren’t green. The hills where they play, smoke, and spew not spring waters but liquefied methane, volatile and toxic.There must be mitochondria for resiliency and inspiration why they come to rehearsals with so much energy and smiles. They too want to tell their stories. Their version of mountain chants was poetry in the form of rap. We tried to stitch together rap music and acting. We came up with a story about a young street rapper who died in a gang war, which later became what critics say as the first rap musical in Philippine theater history. “BAKATA: Bata, Kalye, Makata” or “Battle of the Street Poets” won the Best Children’s Production at the Aliw Awards 2014. It has set the standards of rap musicals in the country and has been inspiration to later productions like “Three Stars and the Sun: The Life of Francis M” and the critically acclaimed indie rap battle movie “Respeto.”

The following year, I worked with the prisoners on Ilocos Sur in a germinal theater project for the residents’ rehabilitation (under the Catholic Church program), which gave way to the Baguio Jail Theater’s “Anatomy of an Octopus Woman” in 2017. The Octopus play gave the Baguio Bureau of Jail Management and Penology a national distinction for excellence in Site Specific Theater Practice, thanks to Nonnette Bennett, who has introduced the theater program under the Alternative Learning System program. This snowballing of creative milestones may have taken a different path (or may not have been realized at all) had the artists, teachers, and creators decided not to rebel from system formulas and of popular theater practices to an extent.

In an almost hauntingly identical manner on how theater scholar Bruce Braid has dissected Hijikata Tatsumi’s artistic rebellion, I realized that many young artists, writers, and theater practitioners (including myself), has been adapting and sprouting in their personal art practices along with a certain rebellion against or an active evolution with a social structure which Michel Foucault has termed as the four kinds of technologies:

A rebellion in One: Technologies of Production, which permits us to produce, transform, and manipulate things. Two, Technologies of Sign Systems, which permit us to use signs, symbols, meanings, or signification; Three: Technologies of Power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain domination, objectivizing people; and Four: Technologies of the Self, which permit individuals to affect their own means of attaining a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, and immortality.

In Technologies of Production, the millennial artist is a more responsible entrepreneur; the sensitivity of many millennial artists towards providing good quality service to the community is reflected by the rise of a significant number of art restaurants, underground clothing lines, innovative learning centers, independent movie houses, independent theaters, and promoting markets of resistance against commercial bandwagon.

In Technologies of Sign Systems, the millennial writers and poets have taken the form of social media influencers, spoken word artists, street performers, performance artists, theater and movie reviewers, bloggers, vloggers, and alternative media creators.

In Technologies of Power, the millennial political activists have exploited the social media, the movies, the performance venue, the stage, the camera lens and the canvas to deflect from many forms of labor atrocities, gender and racial discrimination, human rights violation and extrajudicial killings.

In Technologies of the Self, the millennial artists have embraced a pantheist view of God. Some artists try to develop art practices, which try to “cure” conflicts or wars, which religion and dogma has utterly caused. Some find salvation in music. Some have found a way to incorporate healthy living with yoga and dance. In Brazil, a dance company has used community farming as part of their daily routine before dance practices. The same country has developed the Forum Theater, a practice which members of the congress and the common people participate in an improvisational theater play to find many alternative and plausible solutions to certain social issues, by “acting out” the solutions.

So what does Forum Theater has to teach our present situation on political instability and immediate issues on environmental degradation and overdevelopment? Can we possibly look at ourselves directly without cringing on our realities reflected by unschooled actors? Why can’t we endure a small amount of pain to pop the eye of our own blistering systems?

The future holds a promising explosion of millennial artists and along with their questions sense of entitlements, let us give them the confidence of bearing as many solutions. Give us parks, trees and breathing spaces. If we can make a perfect selfie, we can build a better community.
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