By Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter

In mid-March, Black Box Production had to cancel the sold-out final shows of its extended rerun of Dekada ‘70 the Musical. The Luzon lockdown had rendered in-theater shows all but impossible.

“‘Yung last week namin na-cancel (Our last week was canceled). Fortunately, we were still paid for the remaining shows,” Joshua Martin Tayco, an ensemble cast member, said in a video interview.

Mr. Tayco also lost to the lockdown his slate of appearances in the second quarter. He was scheduled to stage a play about climate change with the support of the Department of Education (DepEd). He was also due to act at this year’s 16-th edition of the Virgin Labfest (VLF), which had been scheduled for June.

At the start of the quarantine, Mr. Tayco and his colleagues retained some hope that VLF would go ahead, because the original lockdown was scheduled to end in mid-April.

However, restrictions on movement did not actually ease until mid-May with the shift to a more permissive form of quarantine, and then only for businesses deemed essential. Mass gatherings remained restricted.

CANCELED SHOWS
The lineup of theatrical productions canceled or postponed by the lockdown include PETA’s Under My Skin, which canceled the tail end of its run. The Sandbox Collective had just completed its first weekend SandboxFest 2020 with Every Brilliant Thing and was set to launch Lungs. Repertory Philippines’ Anna in the Tropics, and Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s The Band’s Visit did not make it to opening night; Dulaang UP’s Nana Rosa, and Ateneo Blue Repertory’s Next to Normal canceled their remaining shows; GMG Productions’s Matilda The Musical shut down after its opening weekend.

Philippine Legitimate Stage Artist Group, Inc. (Philstage), which represents 16 professional theater and dance companies, reckons that its members had about 600 matinee and evening performances scheduled this year. The lockdown displaced 1,700 artists and theater production staff. Its estimate for foregone revenue is about P500 million.

“Between cancellations and postponements, our members are basically left with no programming for the rest of the year in the traditional sense — that is mounting shows and live events in bricks-and-mortar spaces for live audiences, and no sources of income,” Philstage vice president and Representative Christopher de Venecia of the fourth district of Pangasinan said in an e-mail.

“Most of our revenue streams come from individual ticket sales and wholesale in the form of show buying and blockbuying, and we haven’t enjoyed strong and constant institutional support to help us underwrite our costs” he added.

A survey conducted by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and the Department of Finance (DoF) in April found that the hardest-hit sector in terms of revenue losses was the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector with average lost sales of 82.3%. The study assumed that the industry will be closed for nine months this year. (https://lga.gov.ph/media/uploads/2/Publications%20PDF/Presentation%20Material/2020/LU%2019%20NEDA%20Sec.%20Chua.pdf)

The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) estimates its revenue hit at about P90 million at least, the cancellation of at least 800 events including outreach programs and festivals; and the disruption to the work of at least 3,000 artists and production staff since the beginning of quarantine.

The staff of CCP’s resident company Tanghalang Pilipino was fearful for the future after it had to cancel the remaining shows of Batang Mujahideen — the last in the lineup for the company’s 33rd performance season.

Noong nalaman namin na magkakaroon ng quarantine, ang reaction ng staff medyo natatakot at kinakabahan (When we learned about the quarantine, the staff reacted with fear and anxiety),” Tanghalang Pilipino’s marketing manager Juan Lorenzo Marco said in a Zoom interview.

Tanghalang Pilipino artistic director Fernando Josef said the company is waiting on the CCP to reopen before it can return to the stage. “Apektado talaga kami (We are really affected),” he said.

The CCP announced in April that it will be closed for shows and programs until the end of the year.

Mr. Josef said savings will serve the company in good stead, allowing it the luxury of exploring new media that will allow the CCP to expand its reach beyond the physical confines of a theater.

“We still feel a bit safe in terms of being able to survive with the savings of Tanghalang Pilipino. We are not as threatened and helpless as other companies. At the same time, we are studying how to transport live performances from the CCP stage to a new medium and how we can push through our vision and mission as a theater company,” he added.

DIGITAL MIGRATION
While live performances have yet to return to to theaters, artistic creativity retains an outlet online. In recent months, theater companies have made recordings of their previous productions available on the internet, mounted livestream performances as fundraising projects, and conducted online workshops.

Tanghalang Pilipino’s Messrs. Marco and Josef said that the marketing team has been preparing digital promotional materials.

In April, Tanghalang Pilipino launched the #PansamanTanghalan series on its YouTube channel with selected musical numbers from its original productions. In June, it launched #PantawidNgTanghalan on iWant featuring six original productions in a fund-raising effort “to sustain the company’s commitment to bringing artistically-excellent and socially-relevant productions to the public.”

The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), which had to cancel 75 dates across three scheduled productions this year, also began to produce free online content through PETA Theater Online, which audiences could access and engage with via PETA’s social media platforms.

“The pandemic has shut down anything that requires a live audience, and that may be for a while. So making shows available online allows the company to be virtually in touch with its audiences, especially during this time, bringing people together, hopefully helping them feel less alone,” Maria Gloriosa Santos-Cabangon, PETA’s executive director, said.

The CCP, meanwhile, brought out of the vault shows it had been digitizing initially for archival purposes.

CCP Vice-President and Artistic Director Chris B. Millado said in a Zoom interview that the CCP’s online content will be transferring from YouTube to Vimeo in August for a subscription fee. The YouTube channel will be maintained for selected free content.

“This is our way of making our work sustainable. Whatever fee that comes in there will continue to fund activities in the future. And hopefully this becomes a fund that will be able to remunerate our artists, and at the same time, be viable to performing arts companies that are shifting content online. So it becomes a template or business model for them too,” Mr. Millado said.

In June, the CCP eventually went ahead with VLF with live-streamed performances, while offering recorded performances on Vimeo for a fee.

Vimeo was also tapped for fund-raising projects that included online performances and workshops.

In May, Philstage, SPIT MNL, Third World Improv, the Theater Actor’s Guild, and Artist Welfare Project, Inc. (AWPI) oranized the Open House fundraising project, which has disbursed P858,000 to support 429 displaced workers; while online concert series fundraiser Bayanihan Musikhan, initiated by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, raised more than P122 million in cash and kind to help the urban poor affected by COVID-19 crisis.

Full House Theater company’s streamed Ang Huling El Bimbo,which gained 7 million views during its free 48-hour stream on YouTube in May, raised funds for ABS-CBN Foundation to benefit families affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

“At the moment, it’s really about migrating online and being able to monetize our content. The free model that was employed by Open House which encouraged donations through several channels is not sustainable as halfway through the two month-long fundraiser, we started experiencing donor fatigue. It’s understandable since audiences are logically tightening their purse strings because of uncertainty with quarantine and the new normal,” Mr. De Venecia said.

“Our members are exploring other ways, beginning with those like Repertory Philippines, PETA, and Twin Bill productions who will be offering online summer workshops. We’ll be monitoring these closely in the coming months to see if a pay-per-view or pay-to-participate model will be sustainable for the industry in the new normal,” he added.

“Our well-loved REP Workshops for the Performing Arts are going online and we have a lot of enrollees, from our loyal base of workshop students and new ones as well. The online workshops will also provide a good financial avenue for our workshop teachers,” Repertory Philippines Artistic Director Liesl Batucan said in an e-mail.

According to Ms. Santos-Cabangon, venue rentals are also being explored as a possible source of revenue.

“PETA Theater Center spaces which includes the black box theater and studios (could be rented out) for video and photo shoots, etc. The Center also has an open-air roof deck available for outdoor events. PETA has already set guidelines for venue use based on the safety protocols issued by the Department of Health (DoH),” she said.

ADJUSTING TO NEW REALITIES
The CCP is currently preoccupied with the safety of artists using the venues, while precautions for the visiting public are still being discussed.

“Our production and exhibition department has started to come up with protocols regarding ushers since they are the first to greet and come in contact with guests,” Mr. Millado said.

Mr. Millado said one of the measures being looked at is keeping seats at least one meter apart. “We still have to make a decision in terms of physical distancing as it applies to audiences who might walk in.”

Another option is also mounting “hybrid shows” with performances that are physically distanced without a live audience but streamed online.

Philstage has joined a new alliance of the live-events industry, the National Live Events Coalition Philippines (NLECPh). The alliance is currently drafting a safety manual for the performing arts, production designer and Philstage associate artistic director Mio Infante said.

“We are currently working on it and presenting it (for accreditation) to the DoH, Department of Trade and Industries (DTI), and Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), so that they understand that we are also working on our end to get ourselves heard,” Mr. Infante said.

The manual provides guidance on return-to-work safety and sanitation, interactions, pre-production, rehearsals, and audience health.

“Aside from the fact that when you are ready to open, how is your consumer confidence? Will you have people to watch your shows? You have to prepare for it,” he added.

Citing lessons from the the lockdown, Mr. De Venecia said: “Given that the arts is always a response to the times, we’re expecting the majority of our works to be influenced and inspired by the events that took place during the quarantine and the new normal. You can expect that the creative hunger of our artists are alive more than ever.”