Tanghalang Pilipino’s Anak Datu

By Giselle P. Kasilag

ANAK DATU was Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) first live production after emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. A deeply political musical drama, it recounts the 1968 Jabbidah massacre and the birth of the Moro National Liberation Front using a short story by National Artist Abdul Mari Imao as the base material. It was staged in 2022, at the height of political tension from the presidential election, in an atmosphere of historical revisionism and disinformation. With a thorny subject matter and complicated health protocols, there was little expectation that the show would attract enough of an audience to break even. Yet after the first weekend, the company reported sold-out shows. Clad in face masks and armed with alcohol sprays, people came, raved about the show on social media, and encouraged others to see it.

It was the return-to-live-theater scenario that TP artistic director Fernando “Nanding” Josef dreamed of but never dared to hope for. Live performance was among the sectors that were worst hit by the lockdowns. Theater, by its very definition, is a community activity meant to be experienced in person. Shifting to online outlets is not the same.

But they tried it anyway. TP streamed past performances and created new content for two years. While those activities did not bring much income, they led to invitations to conduct workshops and masterclasses for schools, non-governmental organizations, and local government units. That created new income streams that TP is continuing to pursue now that the pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

But the company had been aggressively developing many different avenues to improve revenues even before the pandemic. Thus, when the lockdowns began, they were in a strong financial position to weather the storm.

This was not always the case. In 2008 Mr. Josef, then a full-time actor, received an urgent phone call from businessman Antonio Cojuangco, a TP board member. Mr. Cojuangco wanted him to return to the company that they helped found to set things straight.

TP was in debt and no amount of belt-tightening could save it. Mr. Josef told the businessman to either give him the money or just close shop. He received the money and buckled down. Fifteen years later, he is still at the helm of Tanghalang Pilipino.

That TP was in the red is not a surprise. Many artistic endeavors begin as passion projects and are fueled by the need to express oneself creatively. Financial stability is not always a priority — until the bills need to be paid.

What is impressive is the company’s ability to stay in the black since the bail-out. Changes in budgeting and spending habits, coupled with creative marketing strategies prepared them for the rainy day — which arrived in 2020 with a virus.

As a resident company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), TP receives an annual stipend of P1 million and the use of the Center’s theaters. That, along with ticket sales, grants, and sponsorships form the bulk of the company’s income.

A season consists of four to five shows. Depending on the venue budgets range from P500,000 for a show at the CCP Little Theater to P1 million for a show at the Main Theater. The latter increases drastically if it is a musical, ranging from P1.5 to P2 million. But this is greenlighted only if they are able to get a grant to cover the additional cost. The idea is to use the CCP’s smaller theaters and have more performances per show. A typical show can run for three to four weekends with a total of 12 to 16 performances.

The average TP ticket ranges from P500 to P1,500. There have been discussions about raising ticket prices but given that their main audience are students, there is a conscious effort to stay affordable. A single show at the Little Theater has the potential to earn at least P240,000 while a show at the Main Theater can raise about P600,000. But as the company gives senior/student discounts and lower ticket rates for bulk orders, this eats into their revenues.

The biggest expenditures are the talent fees of the actors and production team, sets and costumes, and rights paid to the playwright. But the show budgets are not the company’s only expenses. TP has a working Board of Trustees, and a full-time administrative, promotions, and marketing staff. And they maintain the Actors’ Company – the pool of artists who perform in their productions.

So, pursuing other sources of revenue is crucial. An example was in 2018 when TP presented their season to the board of Okada Manila. The result was a P10-million grant as part of the casino hotel’s program for corporate social responsibility. The amount represented financial stability that TP had not experienced in a long time.

But no cash infusion would matter if the resources were not allocated efficiently. Mr. Josef credits company manager Carmela Millado for keeping them within budget. She, along with the members of the Artistic Committee, have managed to rein in Mr. Josef’s extravagant ideas and offer more budget-friendly solutions.

And it is this same efficiency and resourcefulness that is driving the company’s return to the stage. More than the pandemic, it was that dark chapter of being in debt that is fueling TP’s creativity and encouraging more partnerships.

One such partnership is the Virgin Labfest (VLF). Jointly managed by TP, Writer’s Bloc, and the CCP, the program was created in 2005 to develop and support new playwrights. One-act plays are staged in a three week-long festival, allowing “virgin” writers to experience seeing what they have written come alive with professional actors, directors, and in an established theater.

In its current set-up, the CCP allocates funds to pay for the fees of the playwrights, directors, actors, designers, royalties, licenses, and other collaborative artists. TP makes its Actors’ Company available to the program, along with its costumes, sets, and props. Writer’s Bloc manages the submissions and sifts through the material for the screening committee.

VLF has grown to become one of the most important events in the Philippine theater calendar. It recently staged its 18th edition, returning to the theater for a 100% live festival after three years of online and hybrid set-ups. The relief is evident in production manager Sandie Molina Javier’s demeanor.

“Originally, akala namin mawawala, o yung biglang titigil (we thought it would disappear or would suddenly be stopped),” confessed Ms. Javier. “Kasi nga reliant ka na face-to-face (Because it is reliant on face-to-face performance). It went online. It was a challenge for everyone.”

VLF grappled with the inadequacies of the technology being utilized for something it was never intended for. Rehearsals via video conferencing did not evoke the same collaborative energy, plus varying signal strengths led to delays that would halt rehearsals. Devices being used ranged from standard monitors to tiny phones. And attempts to make actors appear as if they were facing each other on screen were largely unsuccessful.

Still, a lockdown VLF took place.

In 2022, the decision was made for VLF to return to the live stage. But given the strict health protocols and the infection surges, it was a hybrid version. During the first two weeks, all the performances were held live, recorded, edited, then uploaded for streaming.

Because of the streaming, they discovered a previously untapped market: people who were unable to come to the theater for a variety of reasons. They were living in the provinces or abroad, had disabilities that made it difficult to attend shows physically, or did not have the time to watch on the show date. VLF employed a pay-per-view scheme to monetize the content.

The live staging had its own challenges. Seating capacity was severely limited based on pandemic guidelines. All participants received antigen tests. Groups were segregated into bubbles and closely monitored.

This year, with capacity limitations fully lifted, they chose to exercise an abundance of caution. Testing was still available. Masks and alcohol were provided for both participants and audience members. All these things added up.

Despite the many safety protocols in place, they wondered if the audience would return.

They came.

“For this year, ang capacity ng Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez (TIG, the CCP’s blackbox theater) was 290,” she explained, speaking in a mix of Filipino and English. “First week, we hit more than 50% of that. Second week we were hitting more than 200 persons. By the third week, we were sold out. We had to turn people away.”

But is VLF making money? “It depends on who you are talking to. If you base it on the amount that we spend versus what comes in from ticket sales or from merchandising…. It’s not even break even,” Ms. Javier admitted.

But VLF is not a commercial endeavor. It is a program whose objective is to develop new playwrights and it is highly successful. Good ticket sales are just the cherry on top. On its 18th installment, practically every single production was lauded and garnered critical acclaim. When these plays are picked up by theater groups and even film companies, that’s when the commercial success may come.

But critical acclaim is always sweeter when coupled with commercial success. Repertory Philippines (Rep) claimed both crowns with its first post lockdown production: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel — a success that surprised even the company’s artistic director, Liesl Batucan.

Every single show was sold out. The feedback from critics on this fresh take on a classic was largely positive as well. But the road to this sold-out sweep was long and hard.

Rep’s 2019-2020 season consisted of Stage Kiss, Anna and the Tropics, Carousel, Rep Unplugged, and Snow White and the Prince. Only Stage Kiss pushed through. On the day that the curtain was supposed to rise for Anna and the Tropics, the government announced the lockdown. Everything was cancelled.

“It was a very phenomenally tough time for theater, for the world, for everyone,” Ms. Batucan confessed. “There was a brief moment where everyone was in shock because this was unprecedented. So we needed to quickly recalibrate so we could stay connected to our audiences and our communities. This, we did online.”

Stuck at home, many parents were searching for activities for their kids. Rep’s Workshop for the Performing Arts was immediately redesigned for a video-conferencing format and became one of the more popular options. It was expanded to include voice, costume design, and other aspects of theater.

They developed original virtual content called “Repisodes” that were streamed online for free. Like VLF, Rep discovered new audiences since the content could reach the provinces and abroad.

But since Anna and the Tropics was a completed production even though it could not open, everyone still needed to be paid. As a private foundation, Rep does not receive financial support from the government. The company funds itself so every peso needs to be spent wisely.

“I would call us internally funded,” said Ms. Batucan, “because we do have a working amount that we can tap into, but our income is generated predominantly from ticket sales, and sponsorships, and kind souls donating. That’s still something we are working also on, fostering all these partnerships. And production costs are buffered when we are able to get sponsorships in kind.

“We are PCNC (Philippine Council for NGO Certification) accredited which means the donations that come to us can have a tax write-off. That’s one thing we worked on in recent years. This is also a viable source of funding,” she added.

Rep’s Theater for Young Audiences was another important financial pillar for the company. It would bring busloads of students to Rep’s 800-seat home theater, Onstage Greenbelt (which was closed this year with the redevelopment of Greenbelt 1).

While it seems that Rep has many sources of income, the company is known for high production values. Like TP, the biggest expenditure is the artists’ fees for the actors, designers, and production crew. But unlike TP, Rep needs to pay rent for the theater. A substantial part of the budget is allocated for sets, costumes, props, lighting, and music. And because they acquire material from foreign sources, royalties – often quoted in dollars – also account for a show’s higher cost. Thus, the budget for a typical Rep production is larger, at least P4 million. That was the cost of Carousel.

“It was such a risk but we needed to take that risk already at that time because I was able to get a venue grant for the CCP,” Ms. Batucan said. “We were at the Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez. That was a blessing from God! Maybe, without that venue grant, we might not have been able to mount Carousel. [We were] reeling from the losses of the pandemic — two years of that with no revenue. We were putting out material like ‘Repisodes.’ We had online material but nothing significantly revenue-generating. We had to dip into our existing funds. It was very difficult.”

With a smaller budget, the original vision for Carousel — a cast of over 30 with a 16-piece orchestra — had to be scrapped. It was downsized to 14 performers and no orchestra, instead they used a two-piano score.

Carousel sold out 17 shows. With ticket prices ranging from P1,000 to P3,000 and a seating capacity of about 280, the production expense was recovered after just one performance. The rest was much-needed replenishment of Repertory’s coffers that were severely depleted during the lockdowns. Indeed, it was revenge theater at its finest when it was needed the most.

As the last to reopen among the major theater companies, 9 Works Theatrical’s executive director Santi Santamaria admitted being worried that they may have missed out on revenge theater.

While the successes of Anak Datu, VLF, Carousel, and Full House Theater Company’s Ang Huling El Bimbo were encouraging, he was afraid that the appetite of the audience had been sated. So, the company opted to be conservative and return to material that they already knew: tick…tick…Boom!

Jonathan Larson’s musical is about a composer pressured to choose between passion or stability — a dilemma artists contend with every day of their lives, but more so during the pandemic. It was a fitting piece to reopen the company which chose to shut down during the lockdown. Shutting down made the most sense for them given their unusual situation.

Unlike other theater companies, 9 Works has a unique approach in the way they plan their year. There is no specific structure to their season, no set number of shows that they are required to produce, and no specific content that they need to focus on.

“We don’t want to be boxed in,” Mr. Santamaria explained. “So whatever is available to us, and at the same time [if] it’s something we’re passionate about or we love at that specific moment, then we’re very open to it.”

It does not maintain a pool of actors. It does not have a home theater either, a venue is chosen depending on the requirements of the production. They do not have a set budget per show either. The price tag swings wildly depending on the size of the cast, the royalties, and the venue, among other costs.

It is the material that they choose to produce that dictates all the variables that are often set in stone in other companies. This approach provides unprecedented flexibility and helps keep the company sustainable. They are able to keep overhead low and allot more funds directly into the productions.

“The strategy is very simple,” said Mr. Santamaria. “You do the math… We need to make a profit because we need to prepare for the next show, and the next show.”

But their math leans towards generosity, providing higher than standard pay for their actors and staff. Thus, the budget per show can be three or four times that of Rep’s. At one point, they breached the P20 million mark. They do whatever it takes as long as the math computes.

The year 2020 was expected to be a big one for 9 Works. The year before they produced the Apo Musical and Himala, winning many awards for their efforts. They were preparing to build on those successes with two major shows when the pandemic hit.

The math told them to stop.

“Nothing. I decided that the best way to deal with this was just to don’t do anything. Don’t move.”

They were approached about streaming their material online but no assurances could be made guaranteeing that it wouldn’t get copied so they declined. When other companies started to re-open even with the threat of infection surges, they opted to wait, unwilling to risk show cancellations should actors get sick.

Reopening later than everyone else had its advantages. They were able to observe others and formulate a safer plan to return to the stage. Mr. Santamaria was adamant about starting small so tick…tick…Boom!’s cast of three actors made sense. But they decided to double the cast to make sure that there would be someone to step in should an actor get sick.

The nagging fear though was if they were too late to take advantage of revenge theater. But they were not. Tick…tick…Boom!’s original run was extended from 11 shows to 14. The critics have been raving about the restaging. Interest is high and tickets are selling. The last show is set for Sept. 3.

It appears that Philippine theater is truly on the mend. New material is being staged for an appreciative audience including The Reconciliation Dinner and Ibarra. Not everything is a blockbuster like Carousel, but people have been going out and buying tickets.

Despite these success stories, Philippine theater is still grappling with many challenges that are keeping it from achieving its full potential. Infrastructure is now a major concern. With the closure of the CCP (the main building will be closed for five years while undergoing major rehab), all performing arts groups are competing to book a handful of theaters.

As Mr. Santamaria pointed out, there is a dearth of medium-sized theaters: seating capacity jumps from TIG’s 290 to Newport Theater’s 1,500. Those in the 500 to 800 seat range are few and not all have modern equipment, good locations, and ample parking.

Decades of economic challenges have made it difficult to develop a culture of institutionalized patronage for the arts. According to Ms. Batucan, very few companies give cash outright, with most preferring to give in kind. Thus, Rep’s PCNC accreditation is a crucial first step to encouraging companies to donate.

And with theater being a favored form of dissent, Mr. Josef is steeling himself for possible repercussions for being vocal about criticizing the government. He is not afraid, he said. But he does recognize that the political situation will have an effect on TP’s future.

But the biggest challenge for the theater is also the biggest challenge that the metropolis is facing today: traffic. It literally keeps people away from the theater.

But still, they are all optimistic.

“We’re working on it,” said Ms. Batucan. “We’re working on getting the government support that we need. But meantime, we just have to rise up to the challenge.”