MANILA -- “In a perfect world,” theater artists will have their regular performances in every legitimate venue where they can freely sing, act and display their God-given talents. In the Philippines, where theater has seen a successful rise in the last decade, a play or a musical is scheduled almost every month.
However, in this current pandemic where the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak halted all productions and immobilized practically every artist earning his keep onstage, everyone is on tenterhooks.
“The performing arts industry had to cancel productions, taking in huge losses and leaving artists, production people and those who work in our industry jobless,” said Audie Gemora, president of Philstage and artistic director of theater group Trumpets. “Even if the pandemic tapers off, it will be months, perhaps even a year, before the public will feel safe going back to watch shows. This is a very dire situation for us.”
The pandemic affected the run of Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s “The Band’s Visit,” which was supposed to run from March 13 to 29. “Unfortunately we never made opening night,” said Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, the lead star of the musical. “My friend, Joey Mendoza, who made his directorial debut with Repertory Philippines’ production of ‘Anna in the Tropics,’ also never made on opening night.”
Theater actress Sheila Francisco noted that “every single one of us” – actors, production staff, crew, producers – was taken by surprise at the recent turn of events in the whole country."
"Apart from the obvious that our means of livelihood is now put on hold, more importantly, our passion to practice was suddenly taken away from us,” she added.
Theater actor JV Ibesate, senior member of Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company, is aware that the entire performing arts industry has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.
“A lot of ongoing shows have to be cancelled, shows that are about to open only reached previews,” Ibesate pointed out. “This pandemic impacted the livelihood of everyone, especially since most of us only get to earn by the number of shows that we do.”
Brian Sy, who was supposed to make his Repertory Philippines debut in “Anna in the Tropics,” described the impact as “quite severe,” since theater actors were left practically jobless for a month.
“Especially when you take into consideration that our line of work doesn’t necessarily have the same demands all throughout the freelance industry in terms of job description,” Sy explained. “There are some that can continue to work from home and still get paid upon submission of their deliverables.”
“Anna in the Tropics” was supposed to open on the day the lockdown was declared. “However – as is in my case – if you’re an actor, your physical presence is your asset and is your tool to earn,” Sy continued. “The type of projects actors usually get like going to a film set or a theater venue becomes obsolete because of the lockdown. And if you think about it, if there’s no show to work for, whatever your job description is in the theater, then there’s no work to do. Thus no financial profit to gain.”
Francisco is in the cast of Repertory Philippines’ “Carousel,” originally set to be staged in May but had to be postponed. She is also in Atlantis’ second production for 2020, “Oliver,” which had to be cancelled. Still, despite the cancellations, Francisco still considers herself among the “lucky ones,” compared to the others who lost multiple projects.
Tanghalang Pilipino has been fortunate to have completed its season before the lockdown. However, the company’s last production “Batang Mujahideen,” already suffered setbacks.
“The schools that bought most of the shows backed out,” Ibesate revealed. “What was originally a 12-show run became mere seven shows. It was hard to accept it at first, because we worked really hard to put up the show, but we understand that safety, especially of our student audience, should be of utmost importance.”
Tanghalang Pilipino was scheduled to close the season with the annual Actors Company recital of Luigi Pirancdello's “Enrico IV,” but had to postpone it, too. “We're still hoping that we'll be able to showcase the show, once everything gets back to normal,” Ibesate, who was supposed to play the title role in “Enrico IV.”
Gemora was fortunate enough to have finished the successful run of Trumpets’ “Joseph the Dreamer,” from mid-February to early March. He played Jacob in the musical that was supposed to go to Cebu this May.
“Of course, that is not going to happen [anymore],” Gemora said of the Cebu run. “I was in Ballet Philippines’ re-staging of ‘Rama Hari,’ due to open March 20 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), but that was also cancelled. Philstage’s annual theater awards night, Gawad Buhay, slated for April is postponed indefinitely.”
While the producers have assured the artists that the productions will still be staged in the near future, the artists simply cannot commit to any specific date yet. “Everything is up in the air, considering our situation,” Francisco said. “And it isn’t just us, it’s the entire world!”
Yulo is also in the cast of “Bongga Ka Day,” which is on hold for now. The musical, which will feature the hits of the band Hotdog, was supposed to be staged at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World Manila. Yulo is aware that even if her producers have plans to restage the cancelled musicals in the coming months, no definite date can be announced this early.
“Of course, that is in the horizon, but a lot will depend on how things go with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Yulo admitted. “For ‘The Band’s Visit,’ it will entail availability of the original cast, availability of the theater and other considerations.
“We were scheduled to open ‘Bongga Ka Day’ on June 26. We will need to see where we are in May. That’s supposedly when rehearsals begin. If not, we will need to move it to a later date. What’s difficult is we cannot tell when things will go back to normal and when it is safe again to rehearse and have people enter a theater.”
As for "Anna in the Tropics," Sy said, “As of now, what was communicated to us is that ’Anna in the Tropics’ has been cancelled. No plans whatsoever for any restaging.”
Gemora is aware there are many productions lined up for this year. “All that we will need to adjust to the pandemic to get resolved, which means we all don’t know when we can rebound,” he said.
Coping with this pandemic season financially can understandably be tough, especially to those who are doing freelance work or getting paid for every performance or production.
“To be honest, I still haven’t figured out how,” Sy admitted. “This is difficult to answer. We often rely on a project-to-project type of economy. There are other ways to sustain yourself financially. However those options may have nothing to do with what you do as an artist.”
Gemora noted that most performing arts practitioners are freelancers who rely on projects for their livelihood. “Without shows, they will have no source for income.”
Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) actors get remunerated monthly. “I think for us, members of the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company, it's a bit different,” Ibesate explained. “We're contracted by TP for the whole season, so we get allowances monthly, apart from our salaries for the shows that we are in. We're supported by TP through all of these and we are very thankful to them. I still receive the same amount as what we usually get monthly. Thankfully, nothing has changed.”
Throughout the year, TP also safely contains its actors in one house, where most members opt to stay, apart from their respective homes, especially when there are performances scheduled.
Moreover, the actors of TP have already received their allowance in advance. The budget has been released early in anticipation of the lockdown’ “It's also a good thing that I always set aside a portion of allowance monthly for times like this,” Ibesate said. “You can never be too sure about what happens in the future, and so you always need to be prepared, financially, especially for us, artists.”
Ibesate believes the ones who have been heavily impacted are the freelancers. “I saw a lot of FB posts, even before the lockdown happened, about freelance artists listing down their cancelled shows,” he noted. “This pandemic was a big blow to us and we were not quite prepared for the sudden cancellations. Sure, we have cancelled shows before, because of a storm or any other calamity, but this is different. Suddenly, everything stopped.”
Francisco has “no idea” how the other artists can manage to weather this financial setback in their profession. “I truly pray everyone has something stashed away safely for emergencies,” she said.
Fortunately, some have other streams of revenue. “Thank God, my sisters and I have a recording studio business,” Francisco said. “But even that has been put to a halt. Sound Design, Inc. has been my primary source of income. Acting is my passion.”
Although Gemora can rely on his other sources of income, he honestly admits he is worried for his other colleagues. “I will be okay for a few months, but I need to tighten the belt nonetheless,” he said.
Besides acting, Sy does voiceover work for advertising agencies as an alternative. Around one-third covers the usual cost of his average expenses in a month. “Yet, if I don’t have the right equipment accessible at home to make a clean recording, then most likely, I won’t be able to do this either,” he lamented.
Several fundraising projects are now in place to benefit the other artists, according to Yulo.
“We have ‘Bayanihan Musikahan.’ I have recorded two songs along with other artists to raise funds for the artist welfare program and other people whose organizations in the industry need funds for food, medicine, etc. We at Philstage, an organization of theater producers, are trying to find out what we can do to raise money, as well. That’s in the process,” she said.
Francisco pointed out that "there are so many other people in the theater community who have been hit harder, apart from the performers – production staff/crew, dressers, carpenters, front of house, marketing etc.”
Sy is aware that some of their colleagues are hit harder than others. He, too, is determined to support in his own, little way, not just necessarily in terms of finances.
“There are many ways,” Sy said. “One can share and create awareness of newly created programs like ‘Open House’ for people in the theater industry and ‘Lockdown Cinema’ for those in the film industry.
“There are groups all around the metro that have recently created online platforms that cater to a variety of needs that people have in this time of crisis. Various artists collaborate with Sipat Lawin to create this online conversation amongst practitioners called ‘Komunidad X’ and have livestreams scheduled.”
The two programs that Sy mentioned are collaborations of different artist collectives that aim to help build funding for donations for their fellow freelancers in the industry. “And these are only a few that I know of,” Sy said. “I’m sure there are so much more out there being led by wonderful people in the arts community.”
Yulo is aware that a lot of their fellow artists need their help at this time. “A lot were relying on projects that were cancelled,” she pointed out. “So a lot need our help. Just offering our love and support and knowing we are all in this together, that’s important. We check on each other daily.”
Gemora cited the efforts of the artists to support their fellow performers. Several performing arts entities like the improvisational group Spit, Philstage and Talent Actors Guild banded together to form “Open House,” a fundraising initiative for displaced colleagues.
“We are getting artists to create content online performances, workshops, readings, roundtable discussions, etc. These are posted on our different digital platforms, asking for donations to the Artists Welfare Project Inc. [AWPI] will take care of distributing the funds to colleagues in need,” Gemora said.
Though financial help is greatly appreciated, artists can support each other at this time not just necessarily in terms of finances. “Prayer is the most powerful tool we have,” Francisco said. “I wake up each day and make sure I pray for us all.”
Ibesate thinks the best way to support fellow artists is by watching their performances online. “It may seem like a cliche, but artists are born to perform and create, whether we get something from it or not,” he explained. “I see a lot of my colleagues doing online performances, most of the time for a good cause. I think the best way to support them is by watching them and letting them know that they are doing a fantastic job, offering their God-given talent to help.”
Yulo emphasized this experience gave all of them the realization that they should never take things for granted. “The virus was already a reality in January. Save always for a rainy day. I think people just didn’t expect things to get really bad and work to stop. And not knowing exactly when work will come in is cause for concern. But sometimes it’s also hard to save if income is not regular,” she said.
Granted that this pandemic is unprecedented, theater artists are aware there are indeed hard lessons to be learned at this time.
“Well, this virus is bringing out the best in people,” Yulo noted. “Random acts of kindness are everywhere. People are realizing that only by coming together as one can we beat this pandemic. Seeing the whole world working as one is so moving.”
Gemora remains emphatic that artists still ought to learn from this experience. “This is a lesson for performing arts practitioners to save for a rainy day. Also to consider finding other sources of income. To get health and life insurance. We cannot rely on entertainment alone.”
“Life can be taken from you anytime. Even if you follow all the precautions given, if it’s your time to go, you’re done. I’d like to think I’m ready to meet my maker, but only God can decide that, so I put my entire trust in God,” Francisco said.
For his part, Ibesate said: “For everything, always turn to God. And have a voice. We shouldn't just blindly obey. We are given the ultimate power to discern and we must use it to make sure that nothing wrongdoing gets unnoticed, especially with what's happening in our government.”
IMPORTANCE OF CONTRACTS
One of the hard lessons learned during this time is the value of having contracts. The artists’ engagements ought to be inked in black and white. Literally. “I think that we, as members of this industry, have sort of taken for granted the power that contracts can give in terms of protection – especially in cases like these,” Sy emphasized.
“There is a tendency to delay the completion and signing of these contracts even before the project begins. Cancellation fees are a must, but I think more than that, the percentage of the cancellation fee must be ample enough just in case shows get cancelled for whatever reason.”
Sy explained further: “Artists have done their jobs and producers have to be able to understand that the risk involved with shelling out money for putting up a production includes proper compensation for ALL of those involved. Even if the show didn’t push through.
“The theater platform – as a source of income – restricts a lot of practitioners from being able to get ample amount of projects in a given timeframe. That is the nature of the process. So being compensated properly seems to be a fair demand for the months of rehearsals done and the other projects that were denied because of the commitment made.”
Yulo is looking forward to an organization dedicated to anyone working in the arts that will help the artists in the theater industry.
“Ideally, we ought to form a union like Equity to care for all involved in our trade,” Francisco said. “This include minimum wages, work rules such as length of work day, health insurance, pension and workers' compensation insurance.”
Gemora specified organizations like the Artist Welfare Project Inc., Philstage, and Theater Actors Guild as among those that can aid in the performers in times like this.
Sy agreed that “proper unionization is a must” at the end of the day. “From what I know, there have been attempts to create a sort of equivalent to the Equity structure in other countries. However, the steps to move forward – for one reason or another – have been impeded.
“There has to be a labor union in place within the theater industry. Not just for actors, but especially for the crew, artistic team and producers alike. For protection. For organization. For times like these wherein organizing for charity projects could be done easier because there is a structure in place,” he said.
While Sy acknowledged that the groups and projects that are coming out are fantastic and they show that the community can get together to help one another out in times of crisis, he still strongly bats for unionization in the local theater front. “I’m sure it would help out a lot more if the unionization is legalized and legitimate,” he said,=.
Ibesate admitted that there is no infrastructure in place yet to help the artists. “Although, I think the most important thing now is safety. I believe the industry will rise again, once this crisis ends. And we will become stronger and more inspired to perform again.”
(If you want to help theater artists and staff who have lost their jobs, you can check out this online fundraiser Open House.)