Theater for community and nation

| Written by J. Mikhail Solitario

At age 14, as a young theater enthusiast, Professor Glecy Atienza tried to convince high school principals to establish and maintain theater groups in their schools. During her lunch breaks, she would take a bus to Manila and speak to principals and convince school administrators to encourage students to experience theater by writing and performing.

Atienza started in high school as a member of UP High School’s Drama Club, a dream that she had since grade school. Coming from a family of actors and performers, she says that genetics must have led to her interest in the arts. She attended a workshop at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) facilitated by Lino Brocka, who challenged the attendees to stay in theater.


 Atienza shares her experience in running a community theater at the 2nd CUPSCon in UP BGC. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
Atienza shares her experience in running a community theater at the 2nd CUPSCon in UP BGC. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)


After gathering enough support and participation from pilot schools such as UP High School, Philippine Science High School, Stella Maris College, Manuel Roxas High School, and Lourdes School, Glecy and her group were able to launch the first Dula-Daluyan Festival under the Metropolitan Teen Theater League which she chaired during the martial law years.

While in college, Glecy stayed with PETA, visiting communities during Lent and Christmas and training them to perform Lenten rites and Panunuluyan. Performances featured originally written works because these pieces reflected the experience of the writers and performers. Atienza relays how they were able to make their system sustainable by ensuring that the performers who graduated from their schools came back to become trainers. These individuals eventually banded together and founded the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Pang-Kultura sa Kamaynilaan at Karatig-Pook (Alyansa). The alliance of 31 performing groups in the National Capital Region pooled resources from solicitations and held a festival called “Gawing Ganap and Sining at Kultura sa Paaralan at Komunidad” at the Quezon Memorial Circle.

An offshoot of the Alyansa is Guro sa Sining, whose members have retained the orientation of civic-mindedness and immersion in the community. Being a member of the NCCA’s network, the group came up with “Agap, Iglap, Handa”, a forum theater project on disaster preparedness after earthquakes hit Bohol. The group’s pilot area was Pandacan and Sta. Mesa in Manila, where they taught community members what to do, where to go, and what to bring in the event of a disaster such as Metro Manila’s “The Big One.” The training resembled theater rehearsals where movements are practiced and coordinated.


Students of Manila Tytana Colleges perform a piece from "Misyon ng Kalikasan" (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
Students of Manila Tytana Colleges perform a piece from “Misyon ng Kalikasan” (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)


Theater as social research

Community theater is not based on a geographic or locational community such as a residential area. It is now seen as an avenue or a platform where members of a community come together to work on a project.

Atienza recalls a play called “Taya” (formerly “Pataya, Patihaya”) which dealt with drugs, a recommendation of one of their members from Malabon. In 2002, Atienza conducted research but found in difficult to acquire knowledge because people feared discussing the subject openly. When the play was rewritten using local terms and context-based language, the reception was better. She still recognizes that tackling local issues will always carry some danger with it, precisely because it might actually involve the neighbors you constantly interact with, unlike the discussion of national issues which are perceived to be more detached.

To Atienza, theater involves all forms of art: song, movement, dance, literature and writing. She works with the idea of ”ganap” with theater’s live component, which necessitates community involvement through actual participation in the performance, being a member of the audience, or giving offstage assistance such as lending props, costumes, and materials for stage design.


A short performance on "Sino ba ang Titser" from the play "Titser ng Bayan" (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
A short performance on “Sino ba ang Titser” from the play “Titser ng Bayan” (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)


In a way, members of the community felt like they contributed part to the theater performance without financial resources involved. The “kaganapan” of the play happens both onstage and behind the scenes. “There’s something about theater that other fields cannot offer. It is the live, interactive, participatory experience of creation,” Atienza says. In fact, theater has helped middle-performing students improve because of discipline and time management. Theater serves as a “laboratory of life” where participants can dissect issues and ask questions about the study of society, using tools of analysis and the body as the first instrument.

Within their network, she considers two plays, “Taya” and “Titser ng Bayan”, as their company’s mainstays. “You cannot join these shows without undergoing rigid training and recurring research on the situation. So if you know these plays, you’re definitely from the Alyansa,” she says. “It’s impossible that you emerge from these plays without learning something from the process.”

Moreover, these plays will always have songs because as practiced by Bienvenido Lumbera, one of Atienza’s mentors, plays are more relatable when accompanied by music. The songs are similar to dialogue and serve as points of reflection on the material for the audience. “You need to sing from the heart. Find your voice. Use these songs to make a statement,” Atienza advises her performers.


Epic heroes in Manila

After all these endeavors, Atienza has written a play with support from UP, “Epiko ng Bayani ng Maynila”, whose central theme asks why there are no epic heroes from Manila. She posits that every resident of Manila is a hero in his or her own right. She argues that every Filipino in Manila has his or her stories of adventure and triumph. The play draws inspiration from various Filipino epics but its main story revolves around the lives of theater artists and cultural workers in Metro Manila.

With a huge bulk of her life’s work spent outside the University, Atienza reflects, “I think it’s about time I went home.” Before she retires, she wants to give back by creating her own community theater in UP. One of these initiatives is a resource center called Mandala ng Araling Pilipino, which she offered to her home department in the College of Arts and Letters. The resource center will have a script bank and will develop linkages with communities to share knowledge on language and cultural studies.


The performing group composed of students and teachers (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
The performing group composed of students and teachers (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)


This year, a “truth-telling” festival is in the works, “Sa Totoo Lang”, whose output will be the establishment of community “truth centers” as alternative sources of local, functional information oriented towards creating and producing truth. These “truth centers” may not necessarily be run by the media recognized by Atienza, who has a radio show Wika ng Ina Mo.

Glecy Atienza reminds those who are passionate about theater that, “It’s important to remain creative because we want to remain living in our own nation. When we understand the value of the things around us, we see nationalism in a different light.”