From stage to page: re/viewing the views of reviewers

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Yay! A paper I prepared for the Tanghalan: Preparatory Consultation and Research on Regional Theater Aesthetics project (held from late 2009 till early 2010) will be used/presented in this year's Tanghalin ang Tanghalan: National Conference on Theater Aesthetics on Sept. 28-29, 2011.

The paper I prepared was part of the the National Capital Region group's research output.  The group's output will be presented by Jerry Respeto during the conference. (There are also groups representing Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.)

Here is a shortened version of the paper.

To acquire the full version, for republishing permission and/or citation clarifications,
please contact:
Glecy Atienza
Conference Director
Tanghalin ang Tanghalan: National Conference on Theater Aesthetics (Philippines)

From stage to page: re/viewing the views of reviewers
By Walter Ang
January 12, 2010

Part of the rationale of the Tanghalan! Preparatory Consultation and Research on Regional Theater Aesthetics project states, "A regular audience would have a feel of the qualities they look for when they watch a theater performance.  However, these qualities have to be processed and integrated into the theater artists' experience so that Philippine theater can be marked and appraised not only from the scholars point of view, but more so, from the theater artists' eye."

From this statement emerged the idea of asking what role audiences actually play in the process of developing or maintaining a particular aesthetic: how they acknowledge, process, accept/reject, and even legitimize a production and the aesthetic it embodies or espouses.

The idea grew to mining the thoughts of theater reviewers who are published in newspapers-the reviewers, in this case, partly representing the points of view of audiences: how they become interested in theater to begin with, what they look for in a production, how they evaluate a production, and what opinions, if any, are formed after watching a production.

Partial view
Charged with the task of reviewing theater productions, theater reviewers hold a unique perspective on the landscape of Philippine theater in that they are able to watch much more productions than the average theater audience (or even the average theater practitioner) and are able to survey the various offerings of different theater groups.

Interview questions were prepared in hopes of having the reviewers themselves reveal their personal workings instead of gleaning it from an analysis of their published works.

Given the conference's objectives and its pioneering efforts, the matters discussed here hope to raise more questions than they answer.  Writers, researchers, academics, and theater practitioners will hopefully be spurred to further develop and refine the ideas that are presented here.

Due to time and resource limitations, only the reviewers of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) were interviewed.  The reviewers included would have either written or are still currently writing reviews on plays and musicals, excluding music and dance productions, with a minimum of ten published reviews in the Arts and Books subsection of the newspaper's Lifestyle section.

The cast
Amadis Maria Guerrero (b. 1941) started contributing to PDI in December 1991.  He eventually started writing "capsule reviews of plays" that became integrated into his quarterly "report cards" on the performing arts.

Cora Llamas (b. 1966) shares how full-length theater reviews began being published more regularly in the newspaper's Arts and Books subsection, "Around 1999, several leaders of the theater community, including Audie Gemora, Luna Inocian, Rody Vera, and Bart Guingona approached PDI's Lifestyle section editor Thelma San Juan to propose having a regular theater section in PDI with themselves as active columnists."

"I got a call from Luna who said Thelma wanted to have an exploratory meeting with me regarding my doing regular reviewing for PDI. I wrote reviews regularly until around 2005."

It was around the time of Llamas' departure as a contributing writer for PDI when Gibbs Cadiz (b. 1970) observed that, "no one was covering theater anymore. I volunteered for it, and from writing advance features of theater productions, graduated to writing reviews about them."

To manage the expectations of those who read newspaper theater reviews, it should be noted that reviewing theater productions for a newspaper has certain parameters.

There are format issues such as limited page space, and thus, limited word counts for each article.  There is also the issue of form.  A review is not an academic critique.  While reviewers sometimes touch on theories (performance, literary, etc.), a newspaper is not the venue for that particular kind of discourse.

Nonetheless, with the exclusion of online blog entries written by non-reviewers, it can be argued that this kind of "popular criticism" is one of the closest documented indicators of how and what audiences feel and think.

There are deadlines vis-à-vis short performance runs.  Productions usually run for only three to four weekends.  "Which often means when the review comes out, the play's gone," says Cadiz.

"Because of this, I consciously don't try to make my review as some sort of 'consumer guide' but something a bit higher-a discussion of more salient points other than whether the production deserved a thumbs-up, thumbs-down rating," he adds.

It should also be noted that, unlike newspapers in other countries such as the USA that have resident or in-house theater reviewers, Guerrero, Llamas and Cadiz are not full-time staff reporters for PDI.  This kind of set-up presumes that writing reviews may not always be the priority (whether by circumstance or by choice) for these writers.

Cadiz shares another limitation, "The Arts and Books subsection comes out only once a week, and theater has to fight for space with visual arts, the classical performing arts, heritage issues, books, etc.  Theater can't always be front and center of every issue."  Therefore, not every production ever staged can feasibly be reviewed, and reviewed extensively, even if we assume the reviewers and editors would want to.

It should also be noted that most of PDI's theater reviewers are based in Metro Manila and cover mostly Manila-based productions.

Their statements on how they evaluate productions reveal common thought processes.  Unlike average audience members who do not usually or can opt not to do any type of research prior to watching a show, these reviewers make it a point to learn about a production before they watch it.  They use whatever information they are able to gather as a basis to gauge their reactions and to inform their opinions.

Llamas says, "[Even though] I knew some of the basics of theater arts because of my college theater experience and appreciated the devotion that the practitioners pour into their craft, as soon as I started to write, as much as possible, I studied the background of the play I was reviewing-the context, the history, the social significance, the various interpretations over the years.

"Basically I need to know the material, what the play is about.  There were times when some theater companies offered me a copy of the script prior to the review, and that helped.  Second, I'd research on the art form that would interpret that material.  Then, of course, based on the theater groups' own pre-opening press releases, I'd get a sense of what the director wants to achieve with that particular piece.

"And that would be my beginning criterion:  how faithful was the director in executing that piece according to his vision (and not someone else's)?  How was the audience reaction? (If it was a children's play, I'd bring actual kids to the production and see how they reacted.)  How did all the elements come into play to fulfill or negate that vision?  Which contributed to its success, for example, the musicality, the art design?  Which brought it down, for example, miscast actors?"

Cadiz says, "Mostly, I look for an inner logic or consistency-how 'plausible' the material is, and not necessarily only on the realistic, naturalistic, slice-of-life level. Even farces, fantasies, expressionistic plays should operate on inner logic-the truth of what it's trying to say.

"I suppose I operate by instinct when it comes to what works for me-how well does the acting square with the material's requirements?, how is the direction able to bring to life the play?, etc. I always go back to my visceral reaction to it as I am watching the show. That becomes the scaffolding for whatever intellectual fleshing out I would do in my review-why did the play affect me the way it did, what elements helped bring about that which affected me or didn't, etc."

Beyond their basic evaluative process, all three reviewers articulate that they are aware of certain elements that influence and inform their ways of thinking and reviewing.

Guerrero points to his age and how it imbues his appreciation of what he sees on stage. "I'm 68 years old and, in some ways, very conservative in taste."

Llamas shares that there was a time when she had thought of attending "some kind of formal class on theater reviewing."  She says, "But what ultimately stopped me was the question of impartiality.  If I were to take up a course on theater criticism from this particular university, and this university happened to have a its own theater company, how much of my learning from their course might influence me later on to give them a more favorable review as opposed to reviewing another theater company whose inclinations may be different?  Or for example, if I took dramatic criticism from a mentor with very intense nationalistic leanings, would not his teachings influence my views when I review a Broadway musical?"

Cadiz has internal safeguards that constantly remind him of the place of local theater in relation to foreign practices and his own state of readiness when watching productions.  He says, "When appraising local works, I am cognizant of several facts: one, we can never approximate the production values of Broadway/West End productions, which means having to consider scaled-down works for what they are, and not in useless comparison with their counterparts in other countries. Two, we don't have extensive tryouts here, unlike abroad where shows are fine-tuned through weeks of out-of-town tryouts and previews before opening night. Here, the economy is much more severe: 2-3 months of rehearsal, 2-3 weekends of performance. Thus, I don't review preview performances, preferring instead to see the production when it has settled into its groove during the run, to give it a better chance. Three, whenever a production strikes me as bad, I make it a point to watch it again-because my negative reaction in the beginning might be attributable to outside factors like fatigue, unpreparedness, etc.

"In short, I am willing to give productions a long leash to prove themselves. I try not to write reviews to feel clever about myself or to bitch and nitpick; I come from a place of friendship, incongruous as that may sound. I am passionate about Philippine theater, and I want it to succeed. Whatever criticism I direct its way is the tough talk of a friend."

From these initial efforts at understanding the material as well as being aware of and analyzing their own reactions, these reviewers note that they extend the reach of their learning and research.  Llamas says, "I touched base with others who had gone ahead of me like Nicanor Tiongson or the late Doreen Fernandez and asked how they did it.  During the interviews with the theater people, I'd try to understand as best as I could how they approached their own craft and how they married their unique vision with that particular piece they were performing."

Cadiz says, "Before my professional stint reviewing theater I had spent about half my lifetime watching plays and musicals from the time I came to Manila City after college. I now view those endless voluntary nights spent theater-going as my preparation for this job. I supplement whatever knowledge I have through assiduous reading, research, familiarizing myself with the material, familiarizing myself with the theater companies behind the productions, doing close observation of the theater scene, etc. In short, never allowing myself to be out of the loop when it comes to this field."

Having seen as many productions as they have (easily at least 150 each) and having been involved in the enterprise of evaluating these productions beyond the level of what a "regular" audience might engage in, how do these reviewers perceive what "Filipino theater" or a "Filipino theater aesthetic" to be?

Guerrero puts it simply, "For me, a play about the Philippines or with Filipino characters, and written by a Filipino, whether in English, Filipino or in a regional language, is Filipino."

Llamas says, "The Filipino style of theater could refer to original material conceptualized and mounted by Filipino theater companies, or Philippine-centric interpretations given to foreign work like the way Rolando Tinio would deconstruct Macbeth, for example.

"That's one view, and chances are, the more Western-centric theater companies would take issue with it because aside from the usual Broadway musicals, there are original musicals in English written by Filipino authors like Trumpets' The Little Mermaid"

Cadiz says, "The 'Filipino' style of theater-I wouldn't know at this point since I haven't had extensive experience watching theater abroad. But I notice that Filipino performances have a very heart-on-sleeve style.  The sentiment is clear and clearly enunciated.  Strong emotions characterize most Pinoy plays I've seen. "

Where do we go from here?
As the Tanghalan! Conference aims to answer the question of what "Filipino theater aesthetic" is (and documenting these answers), these reviewers share their sentiments on the current state of reviewing in the country (in Metro Manila at least) and where they hope it will go.

Guerrero says, "Plays will come and go, a few becoming classics, and critics will come and go, reviewing, analyzing and interpreting each production based on their own perceptions."

Llamas says, "One thing that reviewers can use to augment their discipline is a formal course on dramatic criticism given by an organization that is not affiliated with any theater company in the Philippines.  Another would be scholarships that would give them exposure to the various theater industries in other countries, from Broadway, the West End, to the ASEAN countries.  We have to be able to see what's happening in the greater world to understand and see the place of our own theater community in it.  I'd probably recommend taking courses on dramatic courses outside the country and not just one but probably two-from two alternative schools of thought just to get a balance.

"In the absence of a formal theater course, a theater reviewer would simply have to rely on his own passion, diligence, and professionalism to survive and succeed.  At the same time, though, a theater reviewer's growth would also correlate with that of the community he reviews.  What makes theater exciting to review, at least for me, are the things one learns.  However, if for example, theater company A has been producing the same kind of plays and applying the same kind of interpretation in the past decade, and the only difference being the change in cast members, a theater reviewer would get the sense that he's just writing about the 'same-old' stuff.  And in that scene, the excitement can dissipate, and the growth in terms of learning does not happen."

Cadiz says, "The state of theater reviewing in the Philippines is woefully inadequate and inconsistent, both in terms of quality and regularity of appearance. No tradition of useful criticism so far.  I'd like to see more intelligent, engaged theater criticism to happen in the Philippines, and along with it, increased patronage by a thinking audience responding to such reviews--whether they agree with them or not."

What do you think of this conference? Share your comments.

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