Monday, November 7, 2011

"Theater as a Creative Industry" by Joy Virata

This article was published in the business journal of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc. 
Thank you to Jeremy Domingo of Word of Mouth Theater who shared this article.
Theater as a Creative Industry
By Joy Virata

The author, Joy Virata, recently took on the role of the Narrator in Peter Pan by Stages and Repertory Philippines. Photo Courtesy of Joriben Zaballa at
Some years ago, at different times a couple of years apart, I attended two meetings called by government officials who were involved in the development of the Creative Industry. These meetings were attended by representatives from the different arts including theater, fashion, dance, the visual arts, design, etc. They were meant to discover how the government could facilitate the growth of the industry. At each meeting there were concrete suggestions put forth by the different artistic groups and organizations and after each meeting nothing ever happened.

Some forty or so years ago, Zeneida Amador visualized the creation of a theater industry by establishing Repertory Philippines Foundation, Inc. At that time, besides a few amateur and school theater groups, there were only two professional companies—REP and the Philippine Educational Theater Association or PETA. Today there are many professional theater companies of varying sizes, producing plays and musicals by both local and international playwrights in Tagalog or English. This year will have seen the production of at least sixteen shows all produced, directed, designed, staffed and acted in by Filipinos. These include Next to Normal. Seussical, The Sound of Music, Sweet Charity, In The Heights, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Noli Mi Tangere, Aida, Care Divas, William, Haring Lear, Joy Luck Club, Shakespeare in Hollywood, and 39 Steps.

There is a roster of professional Filipino actors, directors, stage managers and crews, set and costume designers, orchestras, musicians, and other theater workers, from which theater companies regularly draw. It is not unusual for actors to be rehearsing for one production and acting in another. Actors also “moonlight” for corporate functions, or provide voice-overs or the talent for commercials. Some theater actors are hired for bit parts in foreign or local moves. Sometimes they are hired for work in Hong Kong, Macao or Singapore or for a production on a cruise-liner. Once upon a time they also became “Kims” or “Engineers” in Ms. Saigon productions.

Every year new actors are added to the roster. There is never any lack of interest in making theater a full-time profession. There is never any lack of raw talent waiting in the wings – willing to sacrifice their time and often having to use their own money for transportation and food just for the opportunity of being trained—even if actors rarely earn enough to support themselves (much less a family) on what they earn.

Most community theater companies (not Broadway nor the West End) in the United States and England (Fringe) depend on public and private subsidy. In the Philippines, for the most part, we have neither. Theater companies must depend on their own resources to meet escalating costs of production—mostly through the sale of tickets and advertising sponsorships. However these sponsorships have become few and far between—specially since the start of the importation of foreign productions. Every company must be creative at ticket selling and thus each company has their own methods of selling.

All theater companies struggle to survive—some better at it then others—and face similar problems. Advertising is expensive and cannot be covered by the ticket prices that can be charged for local productions. Therefore Manila’s active theater scene is the best-kept secret in town. Lucky ones get advertising help from newspapers but the newspapers can only give so much—usually one or two ads once or twice a month.

There is the usual competition from movies, television, DVD’s, etc., and the natural aversion to fighting traffic on a Friday or Saturday night . One has to experience the difference between plastic imagery and human warmth before he is willing to make the extra effort to see a live performance but how does he get that experience without first being lured into the theater? Building an audience is probably the most difficult job in Manila.

Another problem to face is ticket pricing. Although tickets to local productions cost fraction of what they cost in other countries there is valid reason for students and low wage earners to choose cheaper means of entertainment and theater companies must take this into consideration. A P300 ticket is easy to sell but won’t cover costs. Sponsorships help a ltittle but they are few and far between. Thus regular (not for special fundraising) tickets average between P1000 to P2000 and this requires Individual, man-to-man, ticket selling. It must also be noted that many people seem to begrudge having to pay for a theater ticket and will look for “freebies” and discounted tickets whenever possible.

Then there is there is what I will call “unusual competition” from foreign productions that somehow or other seem to get huge advertising sponsorships unavailable to local productions. These sponsorships allow for advertising on television, radio, newspapers and billboards. Corporations also buy tickets (which are usually four and five times the cost of tickets for local productions) and distribute them free to clients. These companies cannot entirely be blamed for this. Numbers count and imported productions attract more attention then local ones do and therefore provide more advertising coverage. It is very difficult to counter cultural mores that give more value to imported products no matter that local productions may be as good and sometimes better than these imports. Globalization is a good thing but we’ve got just as good a product and we produce it at a much cheaper price so shouldn’t we have some kind of protection so that we get a chance to grow?

During the two meetings that were held on the Creative Industries, two suggestions were put forth on how the government can help the theater industry. The industry needs affordable venues – both for performance and for training and it needs help in publicity. Venues may be hard to come by. Even the CCP must hire out its hall to the highest bidders (foreign companies) in order to survive. Local groups relay on the RCBC Theater, Onstage Theater and the Meralco Theater which are usually fully booked—specially in the second half of the year. But a little help with publicity should be possible. A daily listing of productions in newspapers sponsored by the Department of Tourism or a private company would help a lot. Also, tax exemptions for the importation of materials and equipment needed for cultural activities should be implemented. Exemption from the payment of withholding tax on payments for intellectual property rights and rentals for materials should also be implemented.

One of the most precious resources of the Philippines is the artistic talent, creativity and resourcefulness of its people. Yet it is this resource which receives the least recognition from both the private and public sectors, is seldom looked on as having any material value, is last on any list of priorities and first to be removed when budgets are tight. Still theater workers will continue to give their all and hope that someday this will change.

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