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Arts Culture PETA Closes Its 52nd Season This 2020 With The HIV Awareness Stage Play "Under My Skin"

PETA Closes Its 52nd Season This 2020 With The HIV Awareness Stage Play "Under My Skin"

PETA Closes Its 52nd Season This 2020 With The HIV Awareness Stage Play "Under My Skin"
By Franz Sorilla IV
By Franz Sorilla IV
January 17, 2020
The Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) draws its 52nd Theatre Season to a close by responding to an issue that has long been met with silence: the HIV epidemic in the Philippines.

Together with esteemed HIV advocacy organisations The Red Whistle and LoveYourself, PETA launches the Acting on HIV campaign with Rody Vera’s anthology drama Under My Skin, directed by Melvin Lee, as the frontliner.

The Acting on HIV campaign reaches out to audiences through an immersive experience that promotes treatment and awareness of HIV. It seeks to debunk myths and misconceptions about the disease and pushes to eradicate stigma around Persons Living With HIV (PLHIV) through workshops, exhibits, an online 'EduSeries', and talkbacks with HIV experts back-to-back with every show of Under My Skin. PETA also became part of LoveYourself’s annual Mass HIV Screening event, “KYS (Know Your Status) and Play” last November 23, 2019. PETA also participated in The Red Whistle’s annual Project Headshot Clinic in commemoration of World AIDS Day last December 1, 2019.

PETA Executive Director Beng Santos-Cabangon says that it is through this campaign and partnership that various groups can unite and strengthen their cause. “PETA believes that by using the arts as a medium, Under My Skin and other advocacy-oriented activities can become an effective platform for probing, conversations, and a coming-together of various HIV experts and advocates,” says Santos-Cabangon. “It is through this safe space that we aim to humanise the HIV issue that has long become taboo in our society.”

As the cases of HIV rise in the country, UNAIDS initiated 90-90-90 – a new target for HIV treatment by 2020: 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status; 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. Likewise, PETA and its partners now use the stage as a platform to advance the HIV advocacy and tap into larger networks. PETA Artistic Director Maribel Legarda says that partnering up with LoveYourself and The Red Whistle is in line with keeping PETA’s commitment to take an active role in using the arts for education and advocacy. “In the past, PETA has been successful in tackling sensitive topics through theatre. Since the early 2000’s, PETA has been active in mobilising and forging strategic partnerships to help further advocacy work,” says Legarda. “We believe that theatre can be another approach to HIV awareness, be an effective means of public engagement, introspection, and action.”

While LoveYourself and The Red Whistle both employ their own particular approaches to the HIV issue, the Acting on HIV campaign gives the opportunity to collaborate. LoveYourself’s response to the HIV epidemic has always entailed a holistic approach that covers education, prevention, testing, and treatment. “The arts can act as a bridge for people in the midst of crisis,” says LoveYourself founder and executive director Ronivin Pagtakhan. “The country has been testing approximately 35 individuals with an HIV infection per day, and this number gives us two related perspectives: The cases are rising but we are reaching more people to get tested and initiate their treatment. These situations call for more awareness. The arts, particularly theatre, can come into play.” According to Pagtakhan, “It’s been part of our people's discussions, and we should take advantage of it as a bridge to the HIV advocacy, and enable people to act on it.”

In similar fashion, The Red Whistle responds to the HIV epidemic by addressing the need for a change in mindset. “Theatre has the ability to move people to understand the issue more. We need to shift perspectives around HIV-related stigma and change attitudes towards our sexual health,” says The Red Whistle president Benedict Bernabe. “If we want to change people’s minds, we need to tug on their heartstrings first. This is why the arts is an important and necessary component, not just for awareness and education, but also for behaviour change in the HIV advocacy.”

Acting on HIV’s frontliner, Under My Skin is also supported by UNAIDS and Unilab. 

Under My Skin is an anthology drama about the stories of Filipinos living with HIV. We are introduced to a number of characters affected by the epidemic, and their stories are woven together by epidemiologist Dr. Gemma Almonte, who ultimately hopes for a change in public perception, an increase in compassion, and a society afflicted not with ignorance and prejudice, but with compassion and understanding.

A commissioned piece requested by TV and film director Andoy Ranay in 2016, playwright Rody Vera shares that Under My Skin is actually based on people he personally knows and loves. “I decided to write in multiple stories that will somehow mirror the overwhelming increase of HIV cases. And yet nobody seems to be as alarmed, thinking that it's just a ‘gay’ disease,” Rody says.

With the play and the rest of the activities brought by the campaign, PETA and its partners hope to reach out to more PLHIV, recruit more advocates, and promote treatment and testing among Filipinos. Science and medicine prove that there is indeed a way to manage the disease – The true culprit, then, of the worsening cases of HIV in the Philippines is not the virus itself, but the lack of education and the stigma revolving around the issue.

Director Melvin Lee believes that it is a timely avenue to discuss and confront topics such as this in order to spark conversations among the people. “A change in mindset is important, that HIV is not just a ‘gay’ issue since it can affect anybody of any age. It is not simply a private concern, but one that is a public concern. The spread of HIV is a multi-faceted issue,” says Melvin. He also shares that the challenge of Under My Skin is how to present the different stories as truthful as possible. “The material’s strength is the authenticity of the stories and it has to be told in the most raw form and truthful fashion,” he says.

Under My Skin will be a significant addition to the current efforts of HIV advocacy plays in the country’s theatre scene, but Melvin and Rody believe that this will be a standout play, especially with PETA’s evident tradition and success in tackling sensitive topics through the arts in the past. “The play will not only provide the pertinent information about the disease but it will also showcase the wide range of characters that will inspire compassion and humanity in audiences,” Melvin shares. “In doing so, then we will hopefully affect them and we can contribute together in the eradication of the stigma on HIV.” Likewise, Rody hopes that both audiences and artists will be moved on an individual level, and also up to the levels of implementing policies and supporting initiatives to address HIV and AIDS. “Under My Skin addresses not only the nature of the disease but also how society views it, their perceived carriers, and the patients,” Rody explains. “It covers medical, political, social and economic factors. It even covers religious and moral issues. Dealing with HIV is not just about dealing with the virus alone.”

The play features the following cast: Cherry Pie Picache, Roselyn Perez, Eko Baquial, Miguel Almendras, Mike Liwag, Gio Gahol, Anthony Falcon, Gold Villar-Lim, She Maala, Mico Esquivel, Bene Manaois, Lotlot Bustamante, Kitsi Pagaspas, Dylan Talon, Ekis Gimenez, Erold Enriquez, Jarred Jaicten, Joseph Madriaga, Jason Barcial, Dudz Teraña, Rachelle Gimpes, Reggie Ondevilla, Roy Dahildahil, and Csai Habla.

The Acting on HIV campaign launched this October 2019 leading up to PETA’s 52nd Theater Season finale, Under My Skin from February 7 to March 22, 2020 (Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays/Sundays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm) at the PETA Theater Center, #5 Eymard Drive, Brgy. Kristong Hari, New Manila, Quezon City.

For tickets and showbuying inquiries, please contact PETA at petatheater@gmail.com / 725-6244, or TicketWorld at www.ticketworld.com.ph / 891-9999.

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