Saturday, May 28, 2011


*repost of my column in the May 29, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today

What song are you singing? Will you be using a minus-one or do you want our pianist to play for you? Stand on the “X” on the floor in the middle of the room. Project, and remember to always face the panel while you’re singing. Break a leg.

These were the words we would say to the thousands of performing artists who auditioned for the musical, “Miss Saigon,” from the late 80’s to the early 90’s. The series of auditions were held to cast the production of the hit musical in different parts of the world – from London to Stuttgart to Toronto to Amsterdam. For those who don’t know, Lea Salonga, then already an established performing artist, wasn’t pre-cast, she wasn’t discovered by Oprah - she auditioned for the part. So did Monique Wilson, Michael Williams, Isay Alvarez, Robert Sena, etc. Dulce auditioned too, but was deemed over qualified. The most established artists got was skip lining up to register for the auditions – but just like everybody else, they had to submit their CV's together with their headshots, get a slot in the audition schedule, and show up at least half an hour before their scheduled audition.

I share this now in light of a recent conversation with noted tenor, John Glenn Gaerlan, about how young local thespians seem to have developed an aversion to auditions. For them, after being in one, two or five plays, auditioning is already beyond them. And when they do audition and don’t get the part they want, they take it personally and against the people who deemed them not right for the part.

I remember this particular local theater practitioner who auditioned for one of my musicals years ago whom I cast in a supporting role. After learning of his role during our first reading of the script, he never showed up again. It turned out that he wanted to be cast as the lead, and when he didn’t get the role he wanted, backed out. I would meet him again years later, in an aborted production of a popular musical that was to be produced by a local civic organization of which his mother was a member. He showed up during one of our rehearsals with his mother, one of the show’s de facto producers, perhaps expecting to be cast automatically in the production. When I asked him to prepare his audition piece and to let me know whenever he’s ready to audition, again, he backed out.

I once auditioned for Raymond Red’s first feature film, “Bayani.” I was given a supporting role. Years later, Red was about to do his second feature, “Sakay.” I called him up and asked about it, deep inside hoping that he would just give me a role in it. I thought that since we’ve worked together before, he would already know what I can deliver and therefore not require me to audition anymore. He said that he had a role in mind for me, then asked me to audition for the part.

Marlon Brando auditioned for the lead role in “Rebel Without A Cause,” and we all know who got the role eventually. Al Pacino had to audition for the part of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” In that same movie, two of the greatest actors of all time, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando were being considered for the role of Vito Corleone, which was eventually played by Brando. Olivier did not get the chance to read or audition for the part only because he was sick at the time.

Unless you get a part in a soap opera or sitcom that would last for eight or ten seasons, actors are hired on a per project basis, which would feed you for a month or two. There is no job security in this business, but it is not true that you’re only as good as your last gig. You are in fact as good as your last workshop, the last time you trained to hone your talent, the last time you studied your craft to have an even deeper understanding of it. Nobody else knows how good you are at any given point in your career, that’s why you audition. You may have failed in an audition with this or that particular director in the past, but you can always prove to them that you have gotten better at your craft since at another time. On the other hand, you may have worked with a particular director in the past, but prove to have stagnated as an artist since and be turned down the next time you’re standing on the “X” in the middle of the floor in front of him.

So to actors out there, just like Salonga, Wilson, Brando, Olivier, Pacino, go ahead, audition, and audition again. When you get turned down, strive to be a better artist instead of sulking. And remember, project! And remember to always face the panel. Break a leg.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Where's that packing tape? (Part 4 of 4)

*repost of my article in May 22, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today

One gloomy afternoon at the Baguio Arts Guild’s Greenhouse Effect Gallery at the Baguio Botanical Gardens, an emergency meeting was about to begin. Then the chair of the guild, the late Santiago Bose sat in the middle to deliver a statement. The issue was his decision to replace the current president of the guild and caretaker of the gallery due mainly to inefficiency. The gallery has deteriorated in the past couple of months, there’s no electricity and the gift shop is practically empty, so is the guild’s bank account. Bose called for new elections. The president cried foul, who then mustered enough “members,” majority of whom belonged to those who have given the guild up for dead in the past couple of years, and called for this emergency meeting. Bose, coming from a major surgery, obliged, traveled straight from the hospital in Manila to Baguio, and agreed to attend the meeting to state his case.

Halfway through his statement, the heckling began. He never had the chance to finish what he had to say. Instead, he just stood up, and calmly said, “I quit.” Something died in him that afternoon, and the death of the group that once united local artists, the organization that put Baguio on the international map as a haven for world-class artists, the guild that was Bose’s brainchild, began.
An arts festival was attempted by the guild later that year, which excluded Bose, of course. On December 2, 2002, we learned that the festival couldn’t decide on how to go about the closing ceremony the following day. That evening, Bose, after months of gloom, depression and loneliness following his decision to turn his back on his brainchild, was in an unusually upbeat mood, despite a lingering fever. Reggae music put him to sleep that night, and woke up struggling to breathe. I along with two other friends of his would rush him to the hospital later that morning. On the afternoon of December 3, 2002, he passed away, and the Baguio Arts Guild’s arts festival ended.

Amidst all the clutter of the past 15 years is a poster for “Sprikitik, Marabuntas, Smorstikens,” a multimedia tribute we held for Bose three years after his death. The title lifted from Bose’s “magic words” when performing tricks for children. There are also posters and programs for that first musical Open Space staged in Baguio. Letters we sent to schools to promote he plays “Pangarap,” “Once on this Island,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio,” etc. Photos of performances at UP Baguio, SLU-CCA, UC Theater, Tayug, Lingayen and Dagupan in Pangasinan, Candon, Ilocos Sur, Daet Camarines Norte and Lipa, Batangas. Photos of our children through the years growing up in the backstage of various theaters, of them onstage as performers in some productions, of them helping to make props and set pieces for plays.

But the boxes I bought for the move weeks ago remain empty.

I pick up a copy of the first straight play I wrote, “Manifest Destiny.” I think I like my original title for this play, “Anino.” It’s a play about Rizal’s life through the eyes of his brother, Paciano, an unsung hero. On the first page, first line reads, “PACIANO (to JUAN): ‘Nandito ka na naman. Wala ka nang mapapala sa’kin, hijo.’” I'd like to tell this story one more time. 

Pack that packing tape along with those packing boxes, I guess we’re gonna stay in this house for quite a while longer.

Just a while longer.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where's that packing tape? (Part 3)

*repost of my article in May 15, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today

I am looking at a copy of the souvenir program for the play, “Manifest Destiny,” staged in 2001 – I am amazed by the number of advertisements in it, a rare occurrence in Open Space’s journey as an independent theater group in Baguio.

With corporate sponsors and the local government continuing to ignore theater and pouring in their support for beauty pageants instead, we were limited to plays with minimal casting and production requirements. In the remaining years of the 20th century, we staged a series of collections of monologues, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” “Tonyo/Pepe,” and “Mga Ina ng Bayan.” But things were looking up: ticket prices to plays went up from P25.00 to P35.00. We can now print posters and souvenir programs on newsprint.

On the eve of the new millennium, the Baguio Arts Guild was resurrected with the 1999 Baguio Arts Festival. While most of its original members have given it up for dead, one of its original founding members, Santiago Bose, almost single-handedly kept it afloat. We “unofficially” participated in the festival: Ferdie Balanag has just returned to Baguio after a couple of years’ absence, and itching to get right back on the local art circuit, invited me to collaborate with him on “Saka-saka”, a performance art-piece which was performed under, around and on the mulberry trees in the garden of Martha Lovina’s residence in Mines View.

The following year, 2000, we opened a gallery - The Workshop for Creative Survival. The name was borrowed from my mother’s series of workshops for the underprivileged and children of political detainees in the 80’s. There we held workshops, performances and exhibits. Ferdie and I re-staged “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the gallery in what was perhaps Baguio’s smallest theater with a maximum seating capacity of just 12, this time bringing in another local actor, CJ DeRaedt.  We didn’t get a full house. My sister, Carina Altomonte, after teaching a visual arts workshop during the summer of 2000, had her first solo exhibit at the gallery, which I dubbed “Out in the Open,” now the title of my column here. Her exhibit was followed by another solo show, this time by Rene Aquitania, which opened without his works which weren’t ready on opening day. Though that day didn’t end without a spectacle: an impromptu performance in the middle of the street featuring the cutting of Rene’s long hair that had the gallery’s neighbors calling the police to stop the performance. The gallery ran for several months, but as in most artistic endeavors, we couldn’t sustain it financially.

We brought out that packing tape and closed it down and decided to once again just focus on our first love: theater, under Open Space.

The early years of the new millennium ushered in the digital revolution: digital stills, digital videos, digital graphics, etc. Open Space’s succeeding productions then explored these new tools coming up with fresh approaches to play production. Ferdie would later put up a multimedia outfit, the Workshop for Infinite Media, with which Open Space collaborated in our production of the musical, “Pangarap.”

But just as the local arts scene seem to be having a renaissance, politics reared its ugly head once again one gloomy afternoon at the Greenhouse Effect Gallery of the Baguio Arts Guild.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Where's that packing tape? (Part 2)

*a repost of my article in the May 8, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today. 

In the late 90’s, there were hardly any active independent theater groups in Baguio. We in Open Space hoped to fill that void. Our first production in 1996, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” which opened at the (then) BCF Theater as part of their Golden Anniversary celebration, seemed to have revived local interest in the art form - former school-based theater artists came out of hibernation and soon an umbrella organization for both school-based and independent theater groups was proposed.

UP Baguio took the initiative of organizing the first conference of local theater artists. But politics and parochialism got in the way – nobody seemed to trust anybody else, and my participation was questioned for not being “truly taga-Baguio.”

Naively believing that a play can survive without the support of the academe, we staged a play in the summer of ’97, “A Prelude To A Kiss,” at the Mountain Breeze Theater of Camp John Hay, which would later be the venue of a proposed casino that would topple the reign of traditional politicians who were pushing for it. We held auditions and a number of members of St. Louis’ University’s Center for Culture and the Arts, free for the summer, auditioned, and made it to the cast, to the dismay of their director, who did come to watch the play and called it “immoral” because of that one kissing scene. They would also much later be dismayed upon learning that some of their school’s alumni have joined our group. As for me, I felt really sad to learn that they would rather let the talents of these people who were not connected with the school anymore stagnate rather than be showcased for the benefit of the community.

The production was a box-office flop, but we didn’t mind for it proved that Baguio was teeming with thespians, all they needed was recognition, opportunity, and a venue. We moved on.

In the meantime, Baguio’s rapid urbanization surged forward, and while more and more concrete structures were erected all over the city eclipsing its famed beautiful skyline, the Baguio Arts Guild, and with it the local arts and culture scene, slowly crumbled. A re-organization was done, an interim set of Board of Directors was put in place, tasked to overhaul the guild’s organizational structure, who in turn elected a triumvirate who will do the actual work which included me, sculptor Kigao Rosimo and the late Santiago Bose. We had differences in opinion as to how the guild should move forward, so we eventually gave way to Santi who singlehandedly held the reins of the organization for the next few years.

In 1998, after obtaining the permission of Malou Jacob and the late Rene Villanueva, we staged the twin-bill “Tonyo/Pepe,” which featured monologues on Antonio Luna   (written by Villanueva) and Jose Rizal (by Jacob) at the Bulwagang Juan Luna of UP Baguio with myself playing the role of Luna and Amar Chandnani as Rizal. This was the time when a school principal, after receiving our letter inviting their school to the play, was so shocked to learn that the ticket price for the show was pegged at a ridiculously low price of P25.00. She remarked, “Twenty five pesos?!? Ang mahal naman! Akala ko piso lang ang ticket kasi taga-Baguio lang naman kayo!”

The Bulwagang Juan Luna can comfortably accommodate an audience of about 350. At P 25.00, provided we have a full house, we can gross P8,750.00. Less P3,000 (then) for venue rental, a few hundreds for printing expenses, a couple of thousands for production expenses (costumes, sets, props, food and beverage, etc.), add in rehearsal and other pre-production expenses and you get an idea about how much is left for the cast of seven and production staff of five.

I felt bad that the school principal thought that for Baguio-based theater artists, a one-peso ticket price was just right. But, after a couple of years of living here, I was just also glad to be called "taga-Baguio."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Where’s that packing tape?

*a repost of my article in the May 1, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today. 

We’re moving house again, and while we, my wife and I, don’t really look forward to the packing and unpacking, I am quite excited to have that feeling of a fresh start, a new leaf, chapter, a clean slate that moving into a new house brings.

I bought used boxes and packing tape from a grocery store one morning few days ago to get the packing going. But I was scheduled to be out the rest of the day, so the first packing session was to be done by my wife. I came home that night to find that nothing was packed yet, but a lot of stuff was brought out that covered almost the whole living room floor. Apparently, she started to work on the wrong batch of knick-knacks: photographs and memories of our life as theater artists for the past 16 years. So she spent the whole day looking through them instead of packing them up – and I spent the next couple of hours going through them again with her.

An envelope full of newspaper clippings, photographs, souvenir programs of productions past. I pick up a clipping, “X-Men” in bold letters on one Sunday edition of Sunstar Baguio in 1996, a feature article written by Vince Cabreza about a month after I decided to move here for good from Manila. I was producing and directing a performance-art piece called “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” with Baguio actor Ferdie Balanag, my very first theater production in Baguio. We were in our early to mid-twenties then, and that may have been how we came across, generation x-ers out bite the bullet: theater and the fact that there’s no money in it. Well, at least for the artists, mostly. Marketing agents have been known to rake it in selling tickets. The cover photo featured me and my girlfriend then, my wife and the mother of three of my children now, RL, in our 90’s signature tattered denim pants and jackets standing at some back alley off Session Road, looking the photographer straight in the eye.

I didn’t really give up much in Manila for Baguio, I was just glad to leave the dirty, dog-eat-dog urban rat race for the laid back, quiet life up here. Though there’s much more money to be made down there, I didn’t really care then. I was in Baguio the previous year for a couple of weeks shooting a movie and I told myself that one day I was going to move here for good. So there, a year later, here I was – rehearsing plays in the afternoons, shuttling between Rumours, where one goes to socialize and discuss art and fashion, and the now gone Perk CafĂ© at the top of Session Road, where one used to go to get drunk, let loose, and discuss the latest episode of the sitcom, “Friends,” or listen to the at times angsty, gritty, in other words beautifully fitting soundtrack to our lives then courtesy of Vin Dancel, Jenny Carino, Badjao, the late Gian Leung  (may his soul rest in peace, along with Tihani’s) Hannah Romawac, among other budding musicians then.  

Ferdie and I spent afternoons and evenings in some abandoned campus we’ve claimed as our rehearsal space to put together the production. Post-earthquake Baguio was transforming right before my eyes at the time: the first flyover was being built, the first Panagbenga was being staged, Baguio the way I, and everybody else, knew it was being distorted to satisfy certain people’s belief that development and growth can only be achieved at the expense of the environment and everything that is beautiful about Baguio.

In the blink of an eye, merely three or four stage plays later, Baguio beautiful was gone – the courteous cab drivers in their 70’s Toyota station wagons now replaced with speeding and smoke-belching AUVs driven by maniacs; every place within the city being a mere five-miute drive away became a thing of the past the day it took me an hour by jeep to get from Trancoville to the Cathedral; the magnificent skyline now replaced with imposing concrete structures; and rustic Camp John Hay was being sold to a developer out to turn it into a “world-class” resort – the advent of Baguio as a bustling, overcrowded, polluted, highly urbanized city was upon us.

*To be continued