FOOD IN a theater is always forbidden, but food and theater can go together in TAXI (theater, applied, experiential, immersive) Theater, a performance art company whose goal is to engage all the audiences’ senses into the entire narrative.
Started in 2016, TAXI was founded by Eric Villanueva dela Cruz, who is a faculty member of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB) Theater Arts Program and a senior artist-teacher from Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). Mr. Dela Cruz said TAXI is a small group of creatives from PETA who all have a background in storytelling and teaching.
“It is a risk for me, this whole multi-sensorial experience, but also a dream. It’s not the first time that people venture into this, but to completely integrate all of the senses in order to tell a story is something. I do not know if it is the first time, but definitely, I’ve never heard of something integrating food into the story. Whether or not it is the first time, I have this opportunity to explore it,” said Mr. Dela Cruz.
On April 11 to 14, TAXI presented a limited-run of ‘Musta?, its second show after Mulagat, a horror play in 2016. ‘Musta? engages and highlights the audience’s taste buds while Mulagat is all about smell.
“Theater already has a big impact, but I want to add something to the discussion so my interest slowly led me into engineering experiences. Nothing is original now in terms of story telling, so I said to myself maybe this is the way to do it,” said Mr. Dela Cruz.
Presented together with the Arts Management Program under the School of Design and Arts (SDA) in DLS-CSB and TAXI Theater, ’Musta? is about a girl’s journey to depression, her acknowledgement of it, and, later, her better outlook on life.
“My mom died last year, and I couldn’t think of anything but this. In my dramaturgy class, I thought this is the way to go. When I presented it to my class, they all wanted to do it because everyone, after all, has moments of light and darkness. We spent a huge amount of time gathering stories, doing the experience, and consulting counselling organizations,” said Mr. Dela Cruz.
Before the two-hour experiential show started, the audience was briefed that there were two breathing stations inside the SDA theater just in case any audience member could not take the show.
There were also signs and instructions on the wall saying things like “Breath” and “Take your time.” After the briefing, the audience members were given am (rice water) in a glass test tube before entering the dark alley that lead to the theater. Asked of the significance of the rice water in the narrative, Mr. Dela Cruz told BusinessWorld that people with depression experience a loss of appetite, hence the bland liquid.
The inside of the theater was pitch black, which amplified the excitement as well as the terror of what the show could offer. The audience was introduced to a girl in pyjamas whose name was not mentioned. Or maybe it was — this writer’s attention was wandering around the small chamber arranged as the girl’s bedroom. On the walls were written “emo” (emotional) messages about her anxieties and angst over school and life. The audience could walk around the small room and inspect her things, while her voiceover was played in the background. She then walked into the next hall, where the theater seats were, to look around the art installations. The audience could also roam around the stage to look at the art installations — a black plastic trash bin turned into a hollow hanging black cloud installation that anyone could enter. The installation represented the black thoughts of anyone with anxiety or depression.
The audience had to follow the protagonist inside the chambers of the theater, which symbolized her journey to mental wellness. At some point, there was a chamber where the audience could touch and play with scented clays and bubble wrap — which was a therapeutic experience — before being led to a television that showed stories of real people battling depression.
The entire narrative ended up in a simulated Zen garden where two calming narrators instructed the audience on what to do, which required them to participate in the entire story. The audience members were given chocolate (a happy food!) and wintermelon tea (a sweet treat) which were part of the multi-sensorial narration. This last part required the audiences’ will power to stay awake and follow the story despite the very relaxing, very serene ambiance of greens, the sweets, and tables with pillows.
“TAXI Theater is engineering experiences, extending audience engagement, and nurturing imagination,” said Mr. Dela Cruz.
“The first half was about the manifestations of depression, towards the end was about her recovery. I wanted to do something about nature [to end the experience], because it is in looking for something beautiful in the ordinary that we find peace and meaning,” said Mr. Dela Cruz.
While there were voice overs that pushed the narrative forward and told the audience what to do next, he said, “It is difficult to say that the audience is being directed [toward a reaction] because every audience is unique, you’ll get different stories. It is subjective. My main premise now is how you experience things. And in terms on extending the audience participation, it is about their contribution to the whole narrative,” he said. — Nickky Faustine P. De Guzman