PETA: A Theatre for the Nation
In the 1960s, the Philippine theatre scene was heavily influenced by western standards. All stage plays were performed in English—even those written by Filipinos—and performances that used the Filipino language were unheard of. Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, who had prior experience in directing and producing television shows, questioned this. She knew that countries like Japan and France used their own language for the performing arts, and none of them felt the need for an English translation. She thought that a theatre that spoke in its local language had a better way of connecting with its audiences. “You have to draw meaning and power from the lives of the people,” Guidote-Alvarez said. “It was really supposed to provide the country a mirror for who we are as a nation.” With this, Guidote-Alvarez set out to create a blueprint for a theatre company that did just that.
She decided to pursue further studies in the State University of New York in Albany, but eventually moved to the Dallas Theatre Centre. Her time in Texas exposed her to a company that had a similar framework to what she had in mind for the Philippines, and inspired her to cultivate the idea of a national theatre—one that was deeply anchored in celebrating the Filipino culture, while serving the Filipino people. Bright eyed and determined, she took it upon herself to bring this vision to life. The masteral thesis Guidote-Alvarez created was a blueprint of her plans, and upon her return to the Philippines in 1967, she founded the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA).
PETA made itself known by staging its first play at the Rajah Sulayman Theatre in Fort Santiago. The play, Bayaning Huwad (1967), is a Tagalog adaptation of Virginia Moreno’s tragedy which focuses on a man’s willingness to sell his goddaughter to an American soldier to reclaim the family’s land. The likes of Vic Silayan and Lolita Rodriguez were cast in this production, as well as a 16-year-old Lily Gamboa-O’Boyle.
But it wasn’t just the play’s star power that captured the audience’s attention—it was its immersive experience as well. The UP Madrigal Singers mimicked the sound of a thousand people in despair, while some actors hid in the audience and revealed themselves on cue. “Because this was set in the [the Fort Santiago] ruins, you felt like you were in a kind of sacred place. It was old and had a lot of history, and the play lent itself to that,” says Gamboa-O’Boyle. It was also the first time audiences watched a play that was spoken in Filipino and found that the use of the language was beautiful to hear.
The success of its inaugural play set the tone for the company’s future productions, with its vision embodied and its purpose established. But soon after its founding, PETA was faced with difficulties. When Martial Law was declared, Guidote-Alvarez’s husband, Heherson, had to flee the country as he was a target for military arrest. She realised that her presence would likely do more harm than good to the company she founded, and so she decided to follow her husband.
The years to come would prove to be challenging, given the restraint on free speech and the absence of their founder. Despite the times, PETA managed to stay afloat. The blueprint was left with the company, and this served as its guiding light amidst the chaos. “What was important was that they [PETA members] were brave and committed, like they were on a mission,” says Guidote-Alvarez. Members were united by their purpose, which then was primarily to bring awareness to what was happening in the country. The productions they mounted remained relevant as they used the theatre of indirection to express what was necessary. They also credit Teodoro “Ka Doroy” Valencia, then the National Parks chairperson, for providing a layer of protection on them throughout the ordeal. PETA’s resilience amidst these trials resulted in an unwavering strength that continues to push the company forward, even after the Marcos regime.
Its Own Home
In 2005, the company opened The PETA Theatre Centre in Quezon City, after years of having no permanent home. The centre houses the company’s workshops and offices, and serves as the primary venue for their stage plays. It also celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, with a grand two-day concert. In the same year, PETA was given a Ramon Magsaysay Award— considered as Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize—for its contributions to society through the arts. In the five decades of its existence, PETA has mounted about 540 productions, and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
Among PETA’s notable stage plays are Macli-ing Dulag (1988), the story of a Cordillera tribe chieftain who was killed by the Philippine Army for opposing the construction of the Chico River Dam; Rak of Aegis (2014), a comedy-musical using hit songs by the local girl band Aegis; and ‘Night, Mother (2018), a play whose themes heavily revolve around depression and suicide. These are classic examples of PETA’s way of inspiring social change and awareness in its audiences, educating them through entertainment. But this isn’t PETA’s only means of educating—it also conducts theatre workshops, both inside the centre and out.
PETA members go all over the country to show various communities the value theatre has in real life. Teachers, especially in public schools, are taught ways to make classes more interesting for their students while helping create a more comprehensive arts programme in these schools. They also help draw out the artistic skills of various groups of people such as farmers, workers, and those in disaster-stricken areas, using theatre as a means for creative development. Members themselves have gone through this process, and it is what encourages them to help others go through it as well. “Once you discover that creativity within yourself, you will want to be able to do it for other people, to free the creative power in them,” says CB Garrucho, PETA’s current president. “Even those people who have nothing to do with theatre.”
The company also used theatre in helping rehabilitate Tacloban City after the super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). With the help of partners, PETA created a stage play that was largely spoken in Waray (the dialect in the stricken provinces of Samar and Leyte) which the actors had to learn quickly. It was about a fictional community that was divided into factions. When a storm hit the community, the factions needed to unite in order to survive, with each one doing specific assignments. This was how PETA taught the Yolanda survivors about Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM). After watching the play, the audiences were divided into groups and underwent workshops to be further educated on DRRM. The survivors were also grateful to PETA for providing a respite from the trauma they experienced.
Relevance is deeply ingrained in PETA’s DNA. Apart from the socially-relevant themes, the performance styles continue to evolve as well. The company, however, understands that presenting issues that plague society in a way that is straightforward and heavy may not be the most effective. Thus, it chooses the subtle approach, under the guise of comedy or musicals. This way, PETA can get through to its audiences better, and instil a social consciousness in them.
This, ultimately, is what fuels PETA’s continued existence. Each generation of members continue to dedicate themselves to their cause—to use theatre arts as a means of service to the people. Guidote-Alvarez’s vision of a national theatre remains to be the company’s mission. Despite the struggles the company needed to overcome, being grounded by their purpose helped them flourish against all odds. The result is a theatre that genuinely serves its audiences, a theatre that is proud to empower its local culture. “A theatre that is proudly Filipino,” says Garrucho.