By By Pablo A. Tariman
Acting in tandem: Ward Luarca and Son, Guelan
posted 13-Aug-2018  ·  
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Actor-director Guelan Luarca. Like father, like son in theater.

Stage actor and director Guelan Luarca thought that his father, Ward Luarca, seemed to have programmed him for a love affair with theater. “Dad would bring me to his plays in Tanghalang Pilipino during the 90s when I was growing up. He’d let me watch him rehearse alone at home, he’d lend me scripts of productions he was in, he’d introduce me to his theater friends at a tender age of 5 or 6, artists I admire like Mario O’Hara and Irma Adlawan and George de Jesus and Dennis Marasigan and Spanky Manikan and Herbie Go and Ricky Abad. It’s safe to say I was programmed to do theater.”

The theater odyssey of Guelan started since his high school days in Ateneo.

Guelan was member of Teatro Baguntao where he did an experimental performance titled The Mousetrap: Anti-Hamlet which was part of the festival of experimental works called Karnabal with Sipat Lawin.

Together with Christopher Aronson and Ness Roque-Lumbres, the play had them acting out the behind-the-scenes of the Players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, preparing to do the play written by Hamlet “to catch the conscience of the king.”

Guelan’s recollection: “The three players slowly realize that the play they’re about to perform in front of the king was political in nature -- that it was written by Hamlet to insinuate that the King murdered his way to the crown. The chimes of the show begin and the three players are pressed to decide whether they’re willing to “catch the conscience” of the king, or to choose safe, apolitical art. They, of course, decide to push through with the play, at the risk of losing life and limb.”

Three months after Mousetrap, he went to stage Desaparesidos adapted from Lualhati Bautista’s novel of the same title and in his own words, still in the spirit of Hamlet’s catching the conscience of the ‘kings’ in contemporary society.

He said it is more or less the same script but he rewrote the third act. He was encouraged by theater colleagues (Kalil Almonte, Renante Bustamante and Jenny Jamora) who offered to produce the new staging with Delphine Buencamino replaced by Chic San Agustin-De Guzman. “When we had a preview last March of this year, I found that the third act of my adaptation ended on a very cynical, lamenting, jaded tone. I just realized that when I adapted it in 2016, it was right after Bongbong Marcos’ close win (and Duterte’s winning, of course), and so the anger and the dread and the fear and the hopelessness was so pronounced.”

He was referring to the burial of the former president at the Libingan Ng Mga Bayani and the son’s electoral protest and the bloody war on drugs and the martial law in Mindanao. “I thought, no! The play cannot end the way it did in 2016. Now is not the time for gnashing of teeth and despair and staring at the horizon, wondering where we all went wrong. Now is the time for optimism, for putting up a fight, for organizing, for going out in the streets, for licking our personal wounds to take on bigger public wounds for the nation. So, I really hope my rewriting of the third act -- while still being faithful to Bautista’s plot -- can reflect this change in emphasis and spirit.”

He admits directing the new version has some complications even as he wrote the script himself. “While the play stirred my new-found commitment with political theater, it also came at a time when my artistic fascinations geared towards wrenching and straining and tugging the medium of the stage to tell stories in unusual ways. These two sources of energy met headon and this new version was born. I also relied heavily on the input of the choreographer (Jommel Era), set designer (Charles Yee), sound designer (Arvy Dimaculangan), lights designer (D Cortezano), and costumes (Rowel Pasion). I really have to admit that I’m kind of a pain in the ass to work with because I demand a lot of integration with the various elements of the stage, as total a level of collaboration as possible. Sometimes I’d do one thing and then just because of a design element that’s suddenly introduced, I completely change it to become something else. Collaboration and organic development comes at a price – and I tell you it’s really tough. You can ask the artistic team and the actors, especially Brian Sy, Maxine Ignacio, Gigi Escalante, and Xander Soriano who have been with me since the original 2016 production.”

To his surprise, author Lualhati Bautista was a joy to work with. “She allows you to do your thing, she entrusts the material to you, and when she gives comments on your drafts, they’re straight to the point. She is quick to point out when she when she sees something problematic. But she leaves it to you how you’ll solve it. Adaptation is fun work. Because I’m a translator, there’s something about passing one original work through the sieve of something else that I’ve always been fascinated with. Adaptation seems to be the next, more complicated level after translation. To be honest, if I passed my script on to another director, they’d think it’s ridiculous and all over the place. All I had was pure confidence. But sometimes I myself did not know how, I just trusted the rehearsal process and my collaborators.”

What he wants to achieve as a director in a newly adapted play are quite simple though hard to execute. Among them is creating discourse, telling a story well, inviting the audience to change their perspective, even to the extent of making them ruminate ideas that might be uncomfortable or even dangerous.

He points out: “Danger is very attractive to me, not because of some sense of recklessness or adventurism, but danger can sometimes be an indicator that you’re braving uncharted territory in terms of ideas or presentation of truths. And in the era of fake news and relativism, telling the truth is dangerous. Some Filipinos choose to be neutral, but I think it was (Christiane) Amanpour the journalist who said that more than neutrality, we should always aim for truth. The truth is never neutral, there’s always the abuser and the abused.”

For him the biggest challenge is conditioning the actors to become spokespersons of what he calls specific history-under-siege. “That meant yanking them away from the usual set-up of an actor as merely a medium, as an entity who transforms itself to fit the role. I find that too passive, and the psychological effect of having your performance lauded without the need to be political engaged. I need them to be activists in their own right, I wanted impressive performances to come not from a place of technique or craft, but from political engagement and a commitment to purge and exorcise the lies of the dictator from our history.”

("Desaparesidos" -- with direction and adaptation by Guelan Luarca based on the novel by Lualhati Bautista -- runs from August 17 to September 2, 2018 at the The Doreen Black Box, Areté, Ateneo de Manila University. For ticket reservations, contact Kalil Almonte (0917 327 8613) or Joshua Ceasar Chan (0917 677 5141).

Ward Luarca and part-ner with actor-scriptwriter Racquel Villavicencio. A life-time of theater and film.
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