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Art teaches us to never forget

09 December 2016

By William Elvin

Art’s high purpose is to help people to never forget. Through whatever medium, art documents events, culture, perspectives, traditions, and beliefs of people during the time of the work’s creation. We learn so much about civilization and human history - down to how people ate, worked, slept – by looking at various artworks, reading documented stories and mythologies, and listening to music of different eras. Art helps us study, critique, and judge how nations and states rise, and for some, fall into chaos.

As a theatre artist, I have come to realize that my chosen creative medium is a powerful social tool that can educate and inform an audience through entertainment. It creates a unique storytelling dynamic that allows a two-way conversation between the performer and the spectator. When done right, it can immediately strike one’s heart and stimulate one’s mind perhaps more than music, movies, books, photography, sculpture, and painting.

One incident stands out in my mind as proof of how powerful the performing arts could be in getting a message across. In 2005, I went to UP Diliman to watch a stage production entitled ‘Sepharad: Voces de Exilio’, directed by Jose Estrella. In one scene, the woman seated next to me suddenly spoke and delivered a monologue from her seat. She was talking about how she was raped and tortured during the Martial Law era. The actress (Sigrid Bernardo) then walked around the audience area, describing in horrific detail the harrowing experience her character had at the hands of abusive soldiers. The vignette ended with her undressing onstage, showing the scars on her body.
After the show, I left the theater with a newfound passion as an artist and creator. I went out as a passionate person who wanted to create something powerful, socially relevant and artistically striking at the same time. Right then and there, I decided to study the art of performance and theatre to be able to create potent productions like what I just saw.

A few years later, I am proud to have co-written some original stage musicals that commented on Filipino society and discussed important and relevant issues through storytelling and entertainment. Wrapped around song-and-dance numbers and visual spectacle were real, big social issues that needed to be addressed.

The only problem with this art form is that it could be ephemeral. Live performances, once done, cannot be repeated. It is true that we can capture performances on video, but theatre shows are meant to be performed and appreciated live. No video or film recording could equal the impact of a good theatrical performance on stage.

The ephemeral nature of theatre, however, makes it a more powerful and timeless social tool. A stage production can be reshaped and reinterpreted time and time again and given relevance through its script or libretto.

Recently, I again listened to the music of one of my major works in the Philippines, ‘Maxie: The Musical’ (a stage adaptation of the indie movie hit ‘Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros’). In it, the poor family of the titular character resorts to illegal trade to survive. Eventually, a corrupt policeman catches Maxie’s father committing an illegal act and pulls the trigger, then left the corpse lying on a street in Sampaloc, Manila. This scene segues into playwright Nicolas Pichay’s chilling lyric sung by Maxie’s brothers: ‘Ganito ang kapalaran/Parang sa ipis lang/Inaambangan, hinahampas, pinipigtas, pinapaslang’.

If the musical is to be re-staged today, it would automatically be a reflection on the issue of extra-judicial killings and how it relates to the situation of the urban poor. We tackle those important topics while being entertained by the personal life and love story of Maxie, the young and innocent gay boy who falls in love with the same policeman trying to ensnare his family.

This essay suggests the possibility of using theatre as a form of education through entertainment. If we are to make people care about the present, inform them of our nation’s grim past, and warn them of a future marked by impunity and indifference, a timely stage production can be the perfect vehicle for our message. The best way to do this is to think of an important and relevant issue and dress it up with a story that they can relate to so they get hooked.

To further illustrate my point, I offer a free, simple creative pitch for an original, new musical I have in mind. This is a shout-out to anyone who might be interested to produce it.

We present two love stories parallel to each other, one set in the very near future, and one set in the 1970s. The two young Filipino couples are thrown into similar situations, though they live in different times. They meet each other. They fall in love. One morning, they wake up and realize that their freedom is taken away from them. They see the injustice and the abuse in their midst. In the 1970s, it was called ‘Martial Law’. In the looming future, it’s called a ‘War on Insurgence’. The couples fight to have their freedom back. But the young lovers in the 1970s do not survive their battle, as they are torn apart and disappear, never to be seen again. Their modern counterpart, though, can still avoid the same seemingly inescapable fate. They still have hope.

See? The viewers can have their “kilig”, “hugot”, and “hashtagable” quotes on social media. The audience can sing, dance, and cry with our heroes in spectacular and visually stimulating productions. At the same time, they have no choice but to face the brutal reality of a history that is being erased and revised. And through the entertainment, we also guide them to be aware of the responsibility they have now of ensuring that it never happens again.

In this regard, it is the artist’s responsibility to observe, document, interpret, and create his art with the intention of making the audience to never forget.

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William Elvin is a professional theater artist and singer-songwriter. He was the musical director of several plays performed and produced in Manila, including Dulaang UP’s ‘Rizal X’, and Bit by Bit/Peta Theater’s ‘Maxie: The Musical’. His latest stage play, co-written with director Pat Valera ‘Mula Sa Buwan’, will premiere this month at the Irwin Theater in Ateneo de Manila University. He is currently based in Hong Kong, and is working full-time with The Sun HK. 

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