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PETA looks back (and forward)

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By Jasmine Agnes T. Cruz

THE Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), in its long history, has found a new, revamped identity in the limelight because of their original Filipino musical Rak of Aegis. PETA has gone a long way since their beginnings putting up shows in Intramuros, such as the seminal Larawan directed by Lino Brocka. So how has this company evolved through the decades? On June 19, BusinessWorld interviewed PETA’s Artistic Director Maribel Legarda and Executive Director Maria Gloriosa “Beng” Santos-Cabangon, and found out how PETA has built a sustainable and professional creative company.

‘DISAPPEARING ACT’
There is this stereotype that artists cannot be good business managers, so when they come up with an endeavor, like establishing a theater company, artists romanticize not earning well because they are doing this solely for the love of their art. Such freewheeling ways characterized the early days of PETA.

Established in 1967 by Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, PETA began as a theater company that was run in a very informal manner and there was no strong desire to make earning plays. Not earning meant they couldn’t compensate their artists properly. In the past, theater work was done on a largely voluntary basis. Actors were given transportation allowances only. That could mean they’d be given P100 for a month’s work.

In the early days, plays would have 30 to 50 people in the cast, and a huge expensive generator, but now the number of cast members is more equitably distributed. The average play will have 12 to 14 and a touring play will have 10 to 12. “A whole act would disappear the next week,” said Ms. Legarda, describing that the changes during a play’s run would be like “quantum leaps.” Season lineups would merely be decided upon when people chatted with each other, but nowadays, the season will be prepared a year before, and the company does this during formal planning sessions.

It was in the 1980s when PETA started to compensate their artists regularly and they began making plays that earned enough to cover costs. As the years went by, PETA began hiring arts management experts, accountants, and a marketing team. Even the artists, especially those who also had managerial roles like Ms. Legarda, took classes on management. The previous practice of  a gentleman’s agreement was abandoned for contracts. “It was a paradigm shift,” said Ms. Cabangon. “It was time to move to the next level.”




Another reason why PETA wanted to create a more professional system is that they wanted to keep their people. Ms. Legarda said that they succeeded in this regard as whenever PETA hires a new employee, it’s either they stay and grow with the company or realize that this is not for them and leave right away. That’s why their turnover is low. Some have even served the company for 25 years.

Being professional doesn’t mean that the company has become too serious. Ms. Cabangon said the company is big on reflection. They’d have summer outings and employees would reflect about the direction of the company and the issues that they want to tackle in their future creative work. It’s also important for the company to have a sense of community, not a stiff hierarchy. That is why, a week before the opening of every play, all PETA employees from the administrators, to marketing, to management, to the creative team will gather together to watch the show. Then everyone, from the youngest member to the highly ranked, can tell Ms. Legarda what they thought about the play.

BREAKER
Both interviewees agreed that what propelled PETA’s growth is their goal of finding a permanent home for their company. PETA had its initial performance space at the Dulaang Rajah Soliman in Fort Santiago, Intramuros Manila. It was a T-stage theater and an open-air performance space. But PETA didn’t really have an actual home for the rest of their activities. In terms of their office, PETA would move around from houses rented in Quezon City, the Philam Life building, and others, while their acting workshops would be held in different schools.

Though PETA has fond memories of Fort Santiago, the theater venue was becoming problematic, said Ms. Legarda. Since Fort Santiago was open air, they had to cancel shows even if there was just a bit of rain. When it’s the rainy season, that means months of no shows. “When it rains, we’d wipe the floor with our clothes,” said Ms. Legarda. It was also very hot in the afternoon, so they couldn’t do matinee shows. During show time, audiences were uncomfortable because there were many mosquitoes.

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It was in the ’90s when creative organizations started thinking about the issue of sustainability, said Ms. Cabangon. Responding to this, PETA made it their goal to purchase their own building, which they now use for their theater space, offices, acting workshops, and other activities. Having their own space meant that theirs was not an amorphous and impermanent group, but something that will last for years. So in 2005, PETA moved to its new location, The PETA Theater Center located at No. 5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City.

The choice to move from Manila to Quezon City was because most of PETA’s partners and target market were in Q.C., said Ms. Cabangon. Also, their new venue is “close to the center,” not too north, and still accessible for those from the south. To bring in audiences from other areas, PETA regularly rents other venues and bring their touring shows there.

Though their Intramuros days are over, the older members of PETA express nostalgia for that space and often feel like the younger members are missing out on that experience. This nostalgia even affects Ms. Legarda who said that the multi-level performance space of the set of Rak of Aegis was a nod to their Intramuros theater. Ms. Legarda also said that when PETA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017, they will stage shows at Intramuros, just to pay homage to their humble beginnings.