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Theater in the Streets
An Interview with Chris Millado
about the 1980s Philippine Protest Theater

In September 1998, I had the opportunity to talk with playwright and director Chris Millado. Millado became an acknowledged theater artist early on in his career. Born and partly raised in Negros Occidental, Millado attributes a great deal of his aesthetic sensibilities to his schooling where he learned Latin, built sets for school plays, and got up at the crack of dawn to fulfill his duties as an altar boy. Ingrained in his memory were the images and the sounds of the Lenten season—the recitation of the Pasyon, the processions, and all the theatrics of the Holy Week. Philippine traditions, including folk pageantry, inform Millado's works on stage. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of the Philippines (UP) and his M.F.A at New York University.

Ingrained in his memory were
the images and the sounds of the Lenten season—
the recitation of
the Pasyon,
the processions,
and all the theatrics of the Holy Week.

In 1987, the English version of his play Panata Sa Kalayaan, Oath to Freedom, was produced by the Philippine Educational Theater Association to tour internationally.1 It was performed in countries including the United States, Canada, England, France, West and East Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia.2

Millado works in the Philippines and in the U.S., where his plays have been produced and presented in Hawai'i, New York, California, Chicago and Massachusetts. These works include scenes from an unfinished country, Peregrinasyon, and Pinaytok. At the time of this interview, New York's Ma-yi Theater Ensemble had just finished a production of Nikimalika/Li'l Brown Brothers. This play, which explores the experiences of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines, particularly the Bontocs exhibited in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition/ St. Louis World's Fair, was further developed and toured in the different islands of Hawai'i.

In the U.S., Millado is also known for his facilitation of a number of Pilipino American theater troupes in cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. In the late 1980s, he led workshops and directed ensemble-created pieces throughout the U.S. Some of these workshops were timely. The training Millado provided and the productions he directed, which gathered Pilipino Americans interested in theater, tapped into the beginnings of some Pilipino American theater troupes.3

The irony was...we knew about Western theater—Greek, Renaissance, Shakespeare—but we knew nothing about Philippine performance, our own rituals.

The following is an excerpt of a longer interview. The focus of this segment of the conversation is Millado's early theater work at the University of the Philippines during the anti-Marcos state. He was a member of UP Peryante, a student-led protest theater troupe whose works such as Ilocula: Ang Ilokanong Dracula "rammed past the Martial Law parameters, which said that the Marcoses, the military, and the government were forbidden topics" (Fernandez, Palabas, 140). In this excerpt, we hear a personal account and reflections of an artist whose consciousness emerged at a tumultuous and critical moment in Philippine history and politics.

You came into theater at an interesting, well really, an explosive moment in Philippine history and politics. The early 1980s in the Philippines saw a potential of people power against a long, oppressive regime. This was the time you started at the University of the Philippines, as a drama major. I'd love to hear about this time of anti-Marcos protests, how you, your colleagues, your friends, and your fellow aktibistas employed theater during that time.

1982, I think, was a turning point for me. I was at the University of the Philippines. They had just established the theater department, which was called the Department of Speech Communications in Theater Arts. I was in the first batch of majors. I was given a slot in the University's theater season, to direct Ibsen's Wild Duck. The irony was the theater program at that time didn't have a course on Philippine theater history. We knew about Western theater—Greek, Renaissance, Shakespeare—but we knew nothing about Philippine performance, our own rituals.

I experienced reality of terms like "fascist state" and "police brutality." When you are hit by water cannons, it's not just something out of a movie. It's real. It's happening to you.

What introduced me to Philippine performance was an incident in 1982. There was a huge protest action that was planned by the UP students. You might remember that perhaps four years before 1982, there was a revival of people's protest because of the economic crisis in the Philippines and basically the moral bankruptcy of the Marcos government. The Marcos regime was steadily on the decline, while the people's dissatisfaction with this corrupt government was steadily rising. In 1982, Marcos introduced the Education Act, which gives power to the government to direct the curriculum in all levels of education. Of course, UP, being known as the vanguard of academic freedom, led the protest against the promulgation of this act that was perceived to be anti-people and anti-freedom. Teachers encouraged their students to go out on the streets, suspended classes, and joined the students. For the first time, I felt a kind of energy that I had only heard and read about—the protest era of the 1970s, the First Quarter Storm. The students and youth then went to the streets and protested. The first big rally held by students was violent; I found myself in the front lines by accident. I experienced reality of terms like "fascist state" and "police brutality." When you are hit by water cannons, it's not just something out of a movie. It's real. It's happening to you.

I went back to the theater and was still supposed to do Ibsen's Wild Duck. At that moment, doing a play about people in an attic somehow didn't appeal to me anymore. I thought there was something very important happening outside. I stormed into another rehearsal. There was a younger batch of theater arts students who was supposed to work with me. They were also quite agitated. We were all asking: "What are we doing?" All of us who were involved in the demonstration were questioning our purpose. I said to them: right out in the streets there is something very important going on, and we should be getting involved. We as theater majors can contribute by bringing theater out into the streets rather than staying within these four walls. One of those people was Ralph Peña.4 He was one of the young people there, rehearsing some musical. (Laughter) Somehow he heard and listened to what I had said.

...out in the streets there is something very important going on...We as theater majors can contribute by bringing theater out into the streets rather than staying within these four walls.

That's great. What a time to be coming into your own as a theater artist. This group of students, these fellow "agitated" theater majors- were you guys the ones who would become Tropang bodabil?

. Yes. We started experimenting with the Philippine vaudeville form, the bodabil, which borrows from the American vaudeville. What it became was political bodabil, using the repertoire of vaudeville to look into national issues. We came up with stuff like a horror show, depicting a vampire who was very, very sick. It was Marcos, of course, and a lady vampire who liked consuming people's blood. We talked about dog shows and how these dogs were following a bigger master. These were overtly political presentations, usually 15-20 minutes long, done with the most outrageous props, and conceived to be performed out in open spaces, like demonstrations. We started in the lobbies of the university, where teach-ins would happen. Then we moved into the streets where demonstrations were happening. We developed pieces for marches. At some point, we became more involved in the movement, we created pieces that could be performed before thousands of people. Having the people participate was the high point of these performances. We would get the crowd to make sound effects. You could really see the power of performance. We were using simple props and a political message.

Did things change with the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino in 1983? How did you guys respond to that particular incident that pushed the people's reaction to the Marcos government to another level?

Newspapers and radio were under the surveillance and censorship by government. People looked to theater as a "living" newspaper.

Things certainly intensified. Luckily, before that, we already found a system for responding to the cultural needs. During that time, the heightened militarization in the streets was also affecting the youth. Students were being picked up by secret police, and disappearing. We felt that we must always be ready to respond to these things. Theater really became an alternative to media. Newspapers and radio were under the surveillance and censorship by government. People looked to theater as a "living" newspaper. With changes coming at a very fast pace, theater people had to respond quickly, particularly in terms of updates. We would receive a call from a local political organization saying the police had arrested people. Because the community needed to be informed the next day, we would do one- or two-hour rehearsals. Early the following morning, we would perform these pieces in demonstrations, dramatizing what happened. You'd never find this incident in the newspaper, on the local radio or on television. And somehow that prepared us for the events right after 1983, when everything began to pick up at a really crazy pace. We found ourselves performing at these huge rallies protesting Ninoy's assassination.

What do you recall as one of the most memorable performances for you, in all those years of protest theater?

We set up an elaborate plan. About eight members of the group thought about it. We got fake residence certificates and a list of relatives who were not using their visiting privileges.

I don't know if I've told you this, but we found out in 1985 that the first group of political detainees had been in prison since the 1970s. These student leaders spent the best years of their lives in a maximum-security prison since they were 18. A friend of ours who regularly visited their blood relatives in prison told us that the detainees were really demoralized. They didn't know what was going to happen. They had heard about intensified political changes happening outside and they were very, very afraid of what might happen to them if the Marcos people became desperate. These were the student leaders we had only read about. We thought, what if we penetrate the maximum-security prison and perform for them. How do we do that, without ending up there ourselves? We set up an elaborate plan. About eight members of the group thought about it. We got fake residence certificates and a list of relatives who were not using their visiting privileges. We began to study the background of the relatives we were supposed to visit. It was a whole performance in itself…

Getting there. And studying, preparing, for what might be the performance, up until then, of your lives!

Getting there was definitely a performance. We had to go through the first interview with the military guards, asking you why you hadn't used your privileges. Of course we acted our way through it and found ourselves inside. Then we saw those people—

Who you knew only as historical figures.

Yes, but we had to interact with them as our relatives! I think the height of it was being able to perform the 15-minute play that we had prepared about them. The 15-minute play conveyed the message of "don't be demoralized, we are continuing what you started many, many years ago."

Where did you perform this play? And how did you do this under surveillance by the guards?

This blind spot was about 3 feet of space in front of the sink. They said, "We will pretend that we are just eating and you perform in that little corner."

They were in this apartment-like complex inside the military compound, inside the prison. It was surrounded by barbed wire. There was a watchtower-like structure, from which guards could see through all the windows of the apartment. There was no way we could perform the piece. So the political prisoners said, "OK, we have an idea." We all went up to the second floor dining room; there was an area where the guards at the watchtower couldn't see. This blind spot was about 3 feet of space in front of the sink. They said, "We will pretend that we are just eating and you perform in that little corner." We performed in the corner in whispers and they sat there as if nothing was happening. Every time something would hit them, they would cry, or applaud silently under the table. That's how we were cheating this whole regime!

That was really quite dangerous, life-threatening. How did you all talk about it?

After that, of course we said our good byes. We knew that if somehow the military intelligence found out about this, the prisoners would be killed. It was only after Marcos was out of the country that we began to talk about that. In a way, I think that that experience summarizes the kind of theater we were doing. That it goes way beyond. We weren't being paid anything; we were students. We weren't getting any kind of funding with the type of activities we were doing. And yet we were putting our lives on the line.

You were also supported by your teachers at UP. Your education truly reflected the contemporary political issues, affecting everyone's life. And boundaries between knowledge from the academy and knowledge from the streets were being crossed.

Oh yeah! That was one really special characteristic of the intellectuals in the Philippines during that time. A lot of the people who would find themselves as professors were student activists in the '70s. So they were very, very highly supportive. In fact, they were continuing the radical education and critical thinking all throughout the early years of martial law as teachers. And when the time came and the time was right, they went out to the streets.

The theater you and your fellow theater activists were practicing was in company with a widespread practice of protest theater, especially amongst post-colonial countries. Street theater and protest theater have been tools for political empowerment amongst those who have been disempowered-whether it's the working class organizing or forming a union, or the colonized rising up against colonizers. I was wondering if you and your fellow theater activists were influenced by other protest theaters all over the world, and from past and contemporary history, such as what was branded as "seditious plays" in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. .

Yes, because we were always looking for forms. What attracted us to vaudeville was its energy. Exposing and fighting a corrupt political regime was so grim and determined to begin with. We thought: can we just, at some point, give ourselves a break, laugh at it. There was another theater company which was doing really grim and determined work. We thought, let them do that work and let us provide another dimension to protest theater work. We were doing the fun and satirical part of it. The history of "seditious plays" at the turn of the century definitely informed our work. But it wasn't really conscious.5

Sure. Were you linked with these other "people's theater" throughout the different regions of the Philippines?

We are not actors, but..."-a t o r s"
...Then we found out that we were not
the only people doing that. There were so many other people outside Manila, in the Visayas, Mindanao, doing wonderful work.

A great deal of organizing was going on in 1983, 1984. Theater workers were not just performers. But the idea is you go to the workers, you go to the farmers, you go to the urban poor, you go to the different sectors in Manila, and you don't just perform there. Your work was to inspire people, through your performance, to act, to have their own groups.

You all seem to conceive and practice being a theater artist as members of a society, of a community. While you were actors, directors, playwrights, you were also—

Trainers, organizers and also researchers. We are not actors, but we are "-a t o r s6". That is what we called ourselves. Then we found out that we were not the only people doing that. There were so many other people outside Manila, in the Visayas, Mindanao, doing wonderful work. There was relatively an expansive network. We had the fortune to give a face to this network at the end of 1983. We had our first festival.

Was that the Makiisa Festival7?

Yes. We all met, saw each other's work, stood by each other. We said to each other, we should keep on going. So it went on. In 1984 we had another festival. In 1985 we launched our own national alliance of sorts. By 1986, we had regional alliances, Manila alliances, national alliances-all kinds of alliances. These larger networks provided an organizational dimension. It was a way of pooling resources. We didn't have any kind of funding, but we had a lot of resources. We had developed skills on our own, so exchange began to happen.

With Marcos out of power, and a new administration in place, how did your theater work change? What was the direction that you and your fellow artists took? How did you respond to the failures of the new administration that you initially supported?

The political changes also began to affect the things we were doing. With Marcos now out of the country, we lost our "main character." He was fun to satirize.

It was not about being confrontational anymore, but being vigilant because it was a very new administration and a very inexperienced one. There was still the presence of political figures who would still, as we knew very well, hinder or oppose changes. We couldn't let go of what we worked so hard for in the past several years. Actually, the times were quite ominous, and soon after, the series of coup d'etat started. In 1987 I believe, I am not sure of the year, we had about 10 coup d'etats. In a year! We didn't even know how to pronounce it, but we had 10 in a row. We couldn't do any protest theater during a coup d'etat. We just lay low. We could not do street action. We were utterly helpless.

The saddest part was that we lost more cultural workers under the Aquino government than during the Marcos government because of this vigilante state: the para-military units that began to multiply in the regions.

The saddest part was that we lost more cultural workers under the Aquino government than during the Marcos government because of this vigilante state: the para-military units that began to multiply in the regions. We were lucky in Manila. We didn't have that phenomenon. But in the regions, the low intensity conflict strategy heavily affected the cultural workers. In one region, about five people who were part of the network were murdered as they were performing in the fields. The numbers would reach a high, with a massacre of farmers demanding land reform.

Our optimism was steadily declining. We all helped to put this administration in power but its inexperience rendered it helpless. It lacked the political will and strength to impose certain changes for the benefit of the people. In fact, a lot of people who were from the Marcos government were beginning to get their places back in the administration. Because of the series of coup d'etat, Pres. Corazon Aquino gave way to certain demands of the military and big business.

At the same time, an ideological split was happening within the Left, the radical people's movement. With this split, and the perceived weakness of the Aquino government, what were we to do? So, people began to—

the diaspora began! (Laughter)

People began to, I guess, look for their own ways of dealing with the situation. I think that was also the time NGOs began to flourish. The non-governmental organizations were not aligned with either the government or political groups. But they carried the same spirit of sustainability, of grassroots work, without the heavy ideological influence of a political group. And this is where I think the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) began to think of itself as an institution, a school for people's theater. And that was when I was asked to join the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which was a Marcos institution. But together with other groups involved, the Center is being re-oriented. It was also around that time that I was invited to be a guest artist at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Some of the others left the Philippines for the United States.

(This interview was made possible by the New WORLD Theater, based in Amherst, Massachusetts. In September 1998, New WORLD Theater had invited Chris Millado, along with Ralph Peña, to be a part of an international conference focusing on contemporary intercultural theater. I want to thank Professor Roberta Uno for giving me the opportunity to talk with Chris; also my gratitude to Chris Millado for sharing such a rich history, and to Remé Grefalda for her interest in this conversation.)

==================
WORKS CITED:

Fernandez, Doreen. Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History.
     Quezon City, Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press,
     1996.
Van Erven, Eugene. Playful Revolution: Theatre and Liberation in Asia.
     Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

NOTES:

1 The English version, Oath to Freedom, was published in the Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 8. 1 Spring, 48-88.

2 Eugene Van Erven writes in The Playful Revolution: Theatre and Liberation in Asia- "PETA's Panata sa Kalayaan tour may well have been one of the largest and most complex tours by any theatre company in world history. It certainly is the boldest international projection on record by any third world theatre company." While one ensemble toured North American and European countries, another ensemble was performing another version of the play in Japan and Hong Kong. (57)

3 The excerpts presented in this interview do not focus on Millado's work in the U.S. A longer version of this interview includes Millado's thoughts on his work in the U.S. starting in the late 1980s.

4 Ralph Peña is the artistic director of New York's Ma-yi Theater Ensemble and is a playwright. He was amongst other Pilipino theater artists who came of age in theater during the early 1980s.

5 Plays that were perceived as anti-American or suggested anti-American sentiments were deemed "seditious" as part of the 1901 Sedition Act. Pilipino dramatists such as Juan Abad, Juan Matapang Cruz, and Aurelio Tolentino were amongst the playwrights who were charged and tried for acts of sedition. For further discussion on the era of seditious drama, see Doreen Fernandez's "The 'Seditious' Plays" in Palabas.

6 Suffix meaning "one who does."

7 The first Makiisa Festival: People's Cultural Festival was held in Fort Santiago, Manila on December 28-30, 1983. This festival gathered together cultural artists and activists, in the most inclusive sense, throughout the Philippines. Films were screened, plays and dance performances were staged, poetry read, songs were sung, visual arts were exhibited. Through different technical workshops, groups and individuals shared and exchanged artistic methods and styles. Responses through papers, dialogues, post-show discussions were facilitated. The proceedings from this festival was edited and introduced by Professor Nicanor Tiongson, published by PETA.

© Lucy Burns

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