By By tata ramon
The Hablon Dawani I Knew (Second of two parts)
posted 19-Dec-2012  ·  
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In the first part, I started relating my experiences of hablon, which cover the first seven years. I reconstructed the group’s inception and developments, mainly through the artistic and organizational leadership of my sister Estrella, and how by 1979 she relocated to mainland Bicol leaving behind a vacuum that was quite formidable to fill up. The task of sustaining the hablon therefore fell on Etasor, myself and Noli Rodrigueza. Etasor was always the parent-figure of hablon and I was a sort of my sister’s understudy. Noli joined hablon in time for the mounting of “Women for All Seasons” in 1979 wherehe did production design. He brought with him expertise and exposure accumulated from years of work as couturier and as cos-tume designer of the now defunct Clover Theatre in Manila. At this time, too, most of the pio-neer members had graduated. So we almost like started from scratch, recruiting new mem-bers which became the second generation of habloners. It included Bambi Concepcion, Val Binza, the late Lauro Lonosa, Danny Bansagale, Rey Valeza, Jess Israel, and Susan Lacson.

Expectedly, we fumbled through. Our first major project was a piece on then President Marcos commissioned by the CSC administration and intended to be premiered during the strongman’s birthday on December 11 of that year, as a tribute. Etasor wrote the script, which was more of a narrative essay in English tracing the life and times of Da Apo. The task of putting flesh to the essay fell on me. The approach was to have the narrative read off-stage while scenarios will be mounted on stage through mime, embellished with songs and dances. Fortunately, Manayting came home from Albay to settle some concerns she left behind. We asked for her help. She ended up directing, with me as assistant. It was well received, and it toured several venues in three towns (Virac, Bato, Calolbon).

That signalled a new era in hablon’s life: as extension arm of the CSC where theatre was brought to the communities outside of the school. We churned several other productions styled after that Marcos piece, something with clear “developmental” theme that toed the line of the Bagong Lipunan. It could not be otherwise. At that time, the hablon got funding as part of the school’s community extension undertakings. So we had shows titled “Lingap sa Mag-sasaka” where we extolled Madame Imelda’s Green Revolution. Or we would do a tribute to former governor Juan M. Alberto for the inauguration of some patch of street sidewalk. Same work approach here: Etasor wrote the narration and I directed. One exception was a straight play written by Etasor in Bikol about family planning commissioned by PopCom. It toured many places all over the province. Etasor pitted acting prowess with Mark Arcilla as they played father and son. I guess that was an acting event of hablon. Others who did supporting parts were my sister Genevieve, Jess Israel, and one named Consolacion whose apelyido I forgot. Oh, yes, we had some colourful side stories in this production which proved that reality is more melodramatic than fiction.

I was not exactly happy however with how the group’s repertoire was turning out to be. I was then increasingly becoming radicalized in my politics. Developments on the national po-litical scene were getting worse and the local had always been in dismal state as far as I can remember. Meanwhile, I avidly followed what PETA was doing and wished we could do something similar in hablon, that is adopt the principles of aesthetic of poverty in service of “Liberation”and produce angry plays that criticized the status quo. But I knew was I wishing for trouble, so I kept my aspirations to myself.

But we had a good time at hablon. The camaraderie was great. There are no people like theatre people. The work presented opportunities to give vent to one’s creativity, and the pro-ductions allowed that kind of high that only theatre can supply. And yes, I mounted at least two plays that approximated my kind of thing. First, there was “Catandungan!” which was SISAY KITA? by Tata Ramon staged for the provincial foundation day in October. I wrote the script where I at-tempted to use traditional forms, such as the come-diaand the zarzuela. I drew inspiration from production still photos of Aurelio Tolen-tino’s “Kahapon, Ngayon, at Bukas.” To prepare for the production, Etasor and I motored to the hinterlands of San Miguel to interview and take instruction from an ag-ing komedya awtor. The approach was to inject con-temporary issues in meta-phorical package or embed them in the past. I remem-ber that for the finale, we put on stage to perform two liv-ing treasures of Catan-duanes: Nang Concha and Nang Loleng, the female lead who did the original recording of pantomina. Ay, the two divas kind of snubbed each other, palib-hasa parehong mga star. Secondly, there was “Paraisong Parisukat” by Orlando Nadres, which al-though was not very rele-vant to Virac context, gave me a grand time directing because it was about capi-talist exploitation, especially the alienation it produces on workers. I guess it was my nascent Marxist impulses that warmed me up to the play.

Early 1981 signalled an-other turning point in hablon. We decided to go to PETA for the summer workshop that year. Etasor and Bambi Concepcion took the basic theatre arts course while I enrolled in the mime class. We were all thrilled consid-ering the new skills and ori-entation we would all bring back that surely will push hablon to new heights of artistry. The PETA curricu-lum is known for unlocking the creative power in each person; one does not have to be especially “gifted” as indeed the article of faith is that everyone has it. PETA is committed to a pro-people, socially relevant theatre orienta-tion, but does not compromise high aesthetic standards.

It was from that training that hablon became adept at two theatrical genres, the expressionist play and the dula-tula, the latter especially because it would become the signature style of hablon. And because PETA is devoted to the popu-larization of theatre, one of the first things we did when we were back in Catanduanes was to give echo training not only to hablon members but more so to non-members. While my sister started giving theatre workshops to non-habloners be-fore, teachers particularly, it was during this time that training for non-hablon clientele became regular and wide-scale.

The first major production, however, that we did after PETA was a straight play that Etasor wrote, “Mga Anay sa Multi-purpose Center” which I directed. It had three runs, one at the CSC stage, another at the now demolished JMA thea-tre and another at San Andres plaza. It was memorable for me because it would be first of four last major directorial jobs for me at hablon; it was my last year (1982) of active involve-ment. The two others were the Mutya ng Virac pageant that featured music-and-dance extravaganza and the third was a play I wrote “Kapwa Ko, Sino Ka?” an adaptation of the story of the good Samaritan, shown at the Cathedral for the Ash Wednesday observance. The last was the production for the CSC foundation day in March which featured Filipino songs and dances. At this time, the hablon had considerably ex-panded its dance and music bureau, having accumulated an impressive collection of costumes and props for the purpose. Members, too, became more versatile doing various perform-ing roles in acting, dancing and singing. Madame Estela Monjardin had her hands full as folk dance choreographer, and so with Rico Romero and Carol Uchi who blazed as star dancer for a short period on hablon skies (to the regret of many smitten gentlemen in hablon).

Why did I leave? Very seldom do I use for personal pur-poses my writer-ly ek-ek, but before I moved to Manila, I wrote a madrama letter to Etasor to express thanks for bear-ing with me at hablon. I knew I had extra luck with such amount of opportunities to try my mettle in theatre arts made available to me at hablon. Most of that letter had long gone blurred in my recollection (mercifully, the brain knows how to blot out what will kill me now with embarrassment) but I dis-tinctly remember a phrase that should say it all: “it is well for everyone that I got rid of hablon and hablon got rid of me.” Of course Etasor protested that hablon gets rid of nobody, and nobody gets rid of hablon: once a habloner, always a habloner. I did not argue with him, neither did I try explaining myself. For what I meant was quite straightforward. I believe I had done important work at hablon trying to fill in some of the vacuum that my sister Estrella left behind and contributed to sustain the group during a crucial period in its history. Staying longer than necessary will not be fruitful for both me and the hablon.

Looking back, I am amazed no end at how things proceed on their perfect timing. After I left, hablon went on to chart new territories. Remarkable hablon talents such as Rey Valeza, Dave Templonuevo and Annie Gianan flowered forth and brought hablon to new heights of artistry. In 1985, hablon invaded the national stage: it won in a national com-petition and was showcased at the premier theatre in the country, the CCP. At the home front, hablon made great im-pact by bringing theatre to the farthest corners of the prov-ince not just through performances but by facilitating the for-mation of community groups. It was a golden age for arts and culture in the province.

As for me, I went to graduate school with aspirations of becoming a sociologist, and what interesting time to pursue it: Ninoy Aquino was martyred during my first term of gradu-ate schooling. It intensified the anti-Marcos, anti-colonialist sentiments. So I was swept by the protest tide, it may be said that I did my advanced education on the streets, as an activ-ist for freedom and justice. In 1985, I started teaching at the Central Luzon State University, situated in a region which at that time was hotbed of revolutionary fervor. There, I helped found a student theatre group called AKDA. We joined the protest movement and for rallies and demonstrations. Finally then, I was doing theatre the way I thought it should be, sub-suming itself to political goals. In late 1985, I just realized how far I had gone. At one point, I was seated at the CCP Little Theatre and fervently applauded hablon’s glorious per-formance on national stage and its eventual victory where-upon Imee Marcos, the dictator’s daughter, handed the top prize. In less than a month after, I was in some remote Nueva Vizcaya town burying my student, a member of AKDA, who was shot dead by the military during a rally on Manila.

In the early nineties, the Left movement broke-up into two camps that left many activists disoriented. I relocated to Ma-nila and declared myself a “free spirit” which signalled the mellowing of my politics. I then relaxed from theatre work and instead took to more “serious” writing. I did fiction, short stories and plays that is, but eventually concentrated on screenplays. My efforts fetched me some modest achieve-ments, including a handful of awards (a couple of Palancas, the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize, among others). A few of my works had seen the light of silver screen, mostly in the “indies,” two of which were shown at Cannes. Now, I am doing anthropology. This may, or may not be, the vocation I’ll pursue up to retirement. But whatever I have tried doing since I left hablon, those initial years of involvement in the theatre had been foundational influence. Doing theatre cre-ates in one such profound sensitivity to the human condition. I can only be infinitely thankful for that opportunity, and here I make special mention of my sister Estrella who initiated me not only to theatre but to the arts in general.

To end this piece, let me digress backwards. Etasor may be right after all that once a habloner, always a habloner. Terribly homesick , I went on vacation to Virac in 1982 during the October break after my first semester in graduate school. Etasor offered me to stage that year’s commemorative show for the province’ foundation day. I cannot resist because he gave me blanket freedom to determine the tone and content. So I did an expressionistic piece titled “Catandungan, Aming Bayan” which traced the history of Catanduanes from pre-colonial days to present. I injected a lot of anti-US senti-ments, which came naturally for the American period. As for the present, my take against the dictatorship was in the form of, first, references to militarization, and second, representa-tion of patronage politics which the audience immediately recognized as referring to the Albertos. A few days after the show, Etasor was summoned by the powers-that-be and was given a dressing-up. The gods were not flattered. But fortu-nately for me, I was already in Manila by then.

The fact is that I had more engagement with hablon after that, directly or indirectly. Sabi ning mga gurang, dai nabu-tas. In a couple of productions, one of which was the first staging of the highly successful “Abaka!”, I obliged to do the lighting design. Much later, I would join my sister (who too did some kind of a come-back) giving workshops for the school-based groups organized by the Diocese of Virac So-cial Action Center under Fr. Edmund Vargas. All the while, I had followed the developments of hablon from where ever I was stationed.I would renew fellowship with the hablon peo-ple every time I come home. I was in for only seven years, but I have a good idea of its journey further after my actual stint. Looking at the broad sprawl of hablon’s history, it would not look as one smooth go. Like a good script, it is fraught with twists and turns, conflicts and pushes, even setbacks. The truth is, there are unflattering aspects of the hablon story. But that is not the point. Come the three-day reunion late this holiday month, hablon people from all over and of different generations will converge and weave, with their per-sonal hablon yarns that surely tell of how theatre had signifi-cantly shaped their lives, the grand multi-colored tapestry that is the hablon-dawani.

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