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Theater Life from an Outsider’s Perspective

01 May

by Mikaela Cortez and Sabrina Jeongco
SA21 Section J

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Our group decided to observe the process of a theater rehearsal. We were able to collaborate with Tanghalang Ateneo who allowed us to attend and assist several rehearsals of TAKAS. Our informant was Diana Rodriguez who served as the Props head for the production. However, due to time constraints, it was difficult for us to coordinate both our schedules with the rehearsal schedules, so we were unable to observe as a pair. Instead, we observed two different rehearsals on separate dates individually, and we will talk about them at length here.

April 18, 2017 5:30 – 8:00 PM [Mika]

When I arrived at MVP Roofdeck at 5:30pm, I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to stay. The people were scattered along the expanse of the roofdeck, chatting, laughing, some were even exercising. I approached the person who looked liked they had some kind of authority. She introduced herself as Bianca, the head stage manager of the production. She helped make sense of the chaos by pointing out where the four different groups for the four different plays will be staying. She also told me to feel free to ask questions to any member if I was curious about anything or anyone. After that she left me alone as she had other things to attend to.

At that moment, I felt alone, out of place but then I saw a person I recognized from my SA21 class. It was Amber! So I walked over to where she was sitting and chatted with her for awhile. She mentioned that each grouped started practice at their own times and that each worked separately from the other. She also introduced me to the ritual that they do before the start of rehearsals. It was called a check-in which varies for the different groups. Her group for example did “kwentuhan sessions” while the others did exercises or energy passes, where they push onto each other’s hands and then release. This was to help the actors get in sync and it would be easier for them to play their parts. She also introduced me to the other people in her group. They were all friendly and welcoming despite the fact that I’m an outsider. We exchanges stories about what happened during our Holy Week and how we all agreed it felt like it was too short a break. They also shared their lamentations to the group about the numerous things they had to do for their classes and how stressful it was to deal with them.

I didn’t stay long in Amber’s group so I wandered off to find someone else that I knew. I ended up watching Nat’s group practice, partly because there was somewhere to sit where they were situated and there was a place where I felt I wouldn’t trouble anyone during the rehearsal. It was already 6:30pm by that time and most of the groups had already started practicing. I watched quietly for 30 minutes, noting the things that the people in Nat’s group did. There were three people sitting on mono bloc chairs in front of the make-shift stage which was made as close as possible to the real thing. On the stage were half-finished props: big pillows marked where the couch is supposed to be, gray blocks used from TA’s recent play, Janus Silang at Ang Tiyanak ng Tabon, were used here as a marker for the window, there were magazines and papers strewn about the table and the floor, and a chair marked where the office is supposed to be. The person in the middle watched the actors as they did their thing on stage, sometimes he would stop the actors to make adjustments in their blocking or tell them to make their voices a little louder or slow down because they were talking too fast. The two people beside him took note of these changes and the directions that he gave. They did this scene by scene and after running the whole play he would give the actors tips on their movement, facial expression, and tone. The assistant stage managers would also give their own comments at this time.

Diana, someone who I befriended while watching Nat’s group, told me who these three people were. The guy in the middle was the director of the play, Ralph Uy, and the two others beside him were assistant stage managers. All mini-plays in the production had their own set of actors, directors, and assistant stage managers. They were all newbies and trainees in the organization. She, on the other hand, was in charge of all their props and it was a hard job to do because there were only two of them to work on the props for the different plays. She asked me if I could assist her with the props and maybe bring a wallet and a “jeje” bag for two of the plays because these were the only props they were missing. I readily agreed to bring her these things on Thursday when I attend the rehearsal again.

It was 7:30pm by the time the directors of the play let their actors have their dinner. Prior to starting their rehearsal, the members gave their orders for Jollibee so that it would arrive by the time they had their break. They were given thirty minutes to eat and rest before they started practicing again. After eating, I noticed that some of the actors were exchanging lines in a casual manner. I almost interrupted them because I thought that they were talking to me. It didn’t have the same tone as they had when they were on stage and I only noticed that they were exchanging lines in front of me when I listened closely to what they were saying.

Some of the members who approached me thought that I was a trainee or a newbie in the organization, to which I responded that I was not and that I was only observing the event as a requirement for my class. Trainees/Newbies were new members of the organization and were only considered as official members after their first big production which in this case was their upcoming production, TA Lab: Takas. They were still friendly to me and answered my questions with enthusiasm, some even went so far as to “make kwento” about what happens outside of their rehearsals and in their organization. Diana jokingly asked me to become a FOTA which means “Friend of TA.” This, she said, is what they call people from outside the organization who help out in TA’s productions and usually join the organization next year. She invited me to TA’s other rehearsals which were to happen until next week.
After attending the rehearsal, I asked my friend Nat some questions regarding what happened during the rehearsal and his life as an actor. He told me that their rehearsals happen from Tuesday to Friday from 5:00pm to 9:00pm. They started out with a reading on the scripts then the finalization of characters. They would work on scenes with only the specific characters for that part. Then run the whole play.

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April 25th, 2017 5:30 – 6:30 PM [Sab]

I arrived at the Fine Arts Theater in Gonzaga at exactly 5:30 pm, which was the time that our informant told me us that the rehearsal would start. The venue was already very busy with people rushing from one place to the next. I met with our informant, Diana Rodriguez, who ushered me into the theater where there was a play already in the middle of its rehearsal. She explained to me that this play was one of four plays, before leaving me for a few minutes to attend to some business in the Fine Arts Exhibit Hall, where the other cast and crews were also preparing and rehearsing. Once alone, I watched the cast and crew continue on with their rehearsal. This particular rehearsal was for a play called Penitensya. I felt like I was intruding on a private event, especially since the theater was very quiet save for the actors performing, the director, and a few other people next to him who recited cues and stage directions. The atmosphere was also very serious and intense. Besides the director and the actors, and excluding myself, there were 8 other people present during the rehearsal. I didn’t know what purpose they served there, so I waited until Diana returned to ask.

The people in the room largely ignored my presence, except for a few times where the director would look back at me, as if wondering what I was doing there. But for the most part, they were very involved with their work to notice any other external stimuli around them. They worked very quickly and efficiently. While the actors performed the motions and recited their lines, the director would simultaneously shout out stage directions or offer suggestions or small adjustments and the actors would incorporate them into their performance wordlessly. Our informant, Diana, returned around 10 minutes later and I was able to ask my questions. I tried to keep my voice low so as not to interrupt the rehearsal. I first asked who the rest of the people were and what their jobs entailed. She explained that besides the director and actors, the stage managers, assistant stage managers, prop head (herself), lighting head, documentations and publications head, and set head were also present. The assistant stage managers had scripts in hand and, aside from shouting out stage cues, would take note of any changes or other directions that the director would mention, writing these down on their scripts.The doc and pub head would occasionally take out her camera and snap photographs of certain scenes. While the rest of the production heads watched the play, following it with their own copies of the script.

Since I came in during the middle of this particular play’s rehearsal, I was only able to watch around 30 minutes of it before it ended. Once the rehearsal came to a close, people began to cheer and laugh, and the atmosphere lightened up. The cast and crew quickly began gathering their belongings and minor props they may have used before exiting the theater in a hurry. As they were doing this, the next cast and crew of the following play was already entering the venue and setting up without any hesitation. All 4 plays shared two rehearsal spaces. According to Diana, the Fine Arts Exhibit Hall was used for general rehearsal and polishing of the performances, while the Fine Arts Theater was dedicated to one private rehearsal which included blocking and the use of some props. Once all the members of the Penitensya play were out, the next cast and crew quickly began rehearsing without any pause. The actors were already in place, reciting their lines in a murmured way, almost as if they were chanting. They said their lines without any emotion or intonation, which I thought was very bizarre. I asked Diana if this was how the dialogue was supposed to be performed but she told me that this was only a way for them to memorize their lines and to familiarize themselves with the motions, almost like a warm-up before the actual run-through. After a few minutes, the director called for a “real run” with “acting and projection”, and I quickly saw the actors change from simply reciting lines to actually acting them out. The second rehearsal then proceeded as the first one did.

I then asked Diana if any of the students receive compensation for any of their work, since I noticed that these were mostly student-run productions, and she said they did not. The productions are non-compulsory. Besides those who are really doing their thesis work (usually Theater Arts majors or minors), the rest of the members are purely doing the work out of their own volition. The rehearsals usually begin at 5:30 and can last until 9:00 in the evening, and a student must be willing and able to attend these rehearsals and do their work. Many crew members will even do double duty if they lack the manpower; stage managers can be actors, actors can be set heads, and lighting heads can also be a member of the prop department. She tells me that income generated from ticket sales largely go to the org to fund other productions, but that sometimes they need to dip into their own pockets and offer their own money to fund shows without any expectation that they will get the money back if the show just barely breaks even.

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1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?

I was asked to help look for and bring props for the rehearsal and the actual play. What I gathered from this participation was how much of the rehearsal was a communal experience and how it really depended on the efforts of all the members to be a success, even if the member’s job might seem insignificant. Another insight that I would not have gathered from simply observing was the fact Diana, the props head and our informant, preferred to borrow smaller props rather than buy them. She explained to me that this was because the budget was very tight and it was necessary for them to save as much as they could. The budget for a production would come from previous ticket sales for other productions, but most of the time they would only make enough to break even, and even then they would have to pitch in with money from their own pockets to fund other shows.

2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?

Having a key informant allowed us a deeper insight into the behaviors of the people in the rehearsal and in-depth knowledge that we would have otherwise not known. I learned about the member system of Tanghalang Ateneo and how the people present in the rehearsal earned their place there. According to our informant, when people initially join the org, they are labelled as “trainees”. It takes about a year to become an actual “member”, the trainees will undergo a deliberation process by the officers of the org who will decide whether or not they will promote a trainee to member status if they see that they are active in the org. For jobs like the assistant stage manager, it is completely voluntary, and trainees or members simply sign up to be one. They get accepted if they are willing to dedicate time and effort to attend all the rehearsals and help out. I learned from our key informant that most of the roles in the play were completely voluntary, and people were not compensated financially for anything, rather they were doing it because they enjoyed it and were dedicated to it.

3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?

One of the things I learned from participant observation that a questionnaire might have missed was that most of the people there remained there by their own volition, and not for any monetary incentives. The actors and crew do not get paid for any of the work they do, and the income of the org from ticket sales simply goes to the org itself to fund other productions. People are dedicated to volunteering their time and effort for the love of the craft more than anything. Because the production’s success relied solely on their efforts, this made them work harder, and it certainly made me want to provide the best props that I could supply them so that the work of the props department ran smoothly. I also felt that, upon seeing many people working hard, I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb or become a problem. I was able to realize that this kind of attitude was what encouraged them to dedicate so many hours of effort into this and not slack off.

4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?

A questionnaire or interview might be better suited to gathering more objective, impersonal information, such as how certain things are done and for what purpose. But because we were able to see and become involved with the process, we were able to put ourselves in the same mindset as the people taking part in the rehearsal. We were able to understand the process from their point of view and recognize the motivations behind their actions and behaviors.

5. Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?

We were able to see the community spirit of bayanihan present in the rehearsal that we observed, especially in the way that they shared one rehearsal space but were able to systematically let everyone get an ample amount of time to rehearse. This was also reflected in the way that each member of the production worked together and performed their tasks efficiently to lessen the workload and keep things running smoothly. We also observed this in the way that these students participate in these demanding activities yet do not expect anything in return.

 

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