When the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno shared snapshots of the newly restored Manila Metropolitan Theater on social media early this year, these were met with praise, congratulatory greetings, and expressions of gratitude.
Fans of the theater who knew of its shutdown 25 years ago, as well as its topsy-turvy history, were somehow thrilled to find out the Grand Old Dame is once more coming back to life. For the record, the Met has been opened four times over the past 90 years—in 1931,1946, 1978, and 2010. The coming April 27 event will be its fifth reopening.
And while it may be ill-timed to open a performing arts venue during a period of a global health crisis, many Filipinos still relish the thought that in a matter of days, the Met—considered a National Cultural Treasure—will be ready to raise its curtains in time for its inaugural show: the 500th anniversary of the Victory of Mactan.
But after this first event is over, what’s next for the Met? After the hundreds of millions of pesos spent to buy and refurbish the edifice, are there plans in place to make it viable and sustainable? How do we make sure it’s not closing again in a few years?
Three of the country’s arts and culture movers and thinkers—urban planner Paulo Alcazaren, heritage conservationist Eric Zerrudo, and playwright and director Floy Quintos—echo this concern when we solicited their thoughts about Met’s upcoming reopening. Thankfully they know better than us.
‘Should it be a theater again?’
Quintos, who had previously worked in the theater’s publicity department, recalls being asked to join a brainstorming session for the Met a few years back, right before the rehabilitation went in full swing. It was a meeting with NCCA Commissioner for Cultural Heritage Father Harold Rentoria, OSA, actor-director Audie Gemora, the late “Master Showman” German Moreno, and a few other notable personalities.
Everyone was in agreement that the theater needed restoration work, Quintos remembers. But he thought the question that begged for an answer was: Should it be a theater once again? His answer was ‘No.’
“My argument was for creative reuse,” he tells ANCX. “Restore it to its former glory, but find other ways of using it. Keep the signature festival of bananas and mangoes on the ceiling, by all means. Keep the plaster work and the reliefs. But find ways of using the hall so that it won’t depend on theater activity to survive.”
The Palanca-award winning playwright had been there when the theater was in dire financial straits, and as director of theatrical presentations himself, he is very much aware of the huge amount of effort and money needed to mount them. He thus suggested in the said meeting some ideas he had in mind: convert the main hall into a multi-purpose hall so it can accommodate exhibits, bazaars, and trade fairs, while showcasing a curated selection of Philippine handicrafts. Cultural shows would be staged for tourists, to immerse themselves in Philippine culture while shopping.
When bazaar season is over, the halls with movable seats could be rented out for graduations, seminars, moving up ceremonies, and film screenings, went Quintos’ suggestion. He thought expecting the Met to compete and survive as a theater was not possible at that time. “You can imagine how Kuya Germs looked at me in shock. I had just desecrated a monument,” Quintos recalls.
Surviving in post pandemic
Quintos clarifies that he is happy with the renovation that was done, as well as the groundwork laid out by Father Harold and his team. He hopes the Met lives for much longer than its previous lifetimes. “But to live again and to be of true, good use, the Met must be able to compete as a working theater in post-pandemic times,” he says.
To begin with, it has to engage an entirely different audience from before, more discriminating and more demanding of the institutions and the content they patronize.
“Once the pandemic is over, when live theater and performance should once again regain their vitality and importance in our lives—and we all pray that this will happen in the not-so-distant future—the Met must be able to compete with established state-of-the-art theaters like The Newport at Resorts World, The Theater at Solaire, the smaller, more intimate venues at BGC and other venues (the constructions of which have been put on hold by the pandemic),” he says. Quintos points out the advantage of these places: accessibility and proximity to restaurants and other establishments patronized by the theater-going public.
He noted the importance of a theater being producer-friendly—meaning, there should be parking spaces, adequate loading docks, backstage storage, electronic lifts, fly systems, revolving stages, dressing rooms and bathrooms. There is a need to constantly upgrade the sound, lighting, and other technical requirements, both hardware and software. “The Met must be on par with the recent developments of technical theater if it is to become a viable option for producers and theater groups who will rent the venue,” Quintos points out.
In order to augment the theater’s income, Quintos suggests that the theater should also consider offering alternative spaces for smaller productions such as blackbox-type theaters and intimate spaces, hallways or galleries for recitals, exhibitions and lectures.
But even more important than the technical amenities and features, Quintos says, is the content it will be producing. “A theater is not a theater unless it builds a brand for the content it produces and an audience that is supportive of that content,” he says.
If Met would have its resident performing groups, the questions then, says Quintos, would be—where would the subsidy come from and for how long would it be given that support?
The need for a masterplan
Eric Zerrudo, who used to work with the GSIS Museum, shares that when the Met was still under the wing of the social insurance institution, they had conducted a feasibility study. The finding then echoes Quintos’ idea: the Met won’t survive as a theater. It’s just not feasible.
The suggestion at that time, says Zerrudo, a cultural heritage specialist who now works as director of the UST Graduate School Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics, was to make it an arts academy with all seven traditional subdivisions: architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performing, and film stories.
And Paulo Alcazaren, a dancer in his younger years, agrees, “It could be Manila’s equivalent of The Juilliard School in New York.”
Zerrudo, who is also an associate professor at UST, points out that there are several universities that are within walking or quick ride’s proximity to the Met—the UST, San Beda, La Consolacion, Far Eastern University, University of the East, Lyceum of the Philippines, Letran, Sta. Isabel, Mapua University, Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, plus the many high schools around it. “Those schools are always looking for classroom space, and we have the Met in the middle that they can share as a performance venue,” he says.
“These [academic institutions] could and should fuel a steady calendar of events that would benefit both their students as well as the general population,” says Alcazaren, an authority on urban design and landscape architecture.
Alcazaren says it is crucial to create a larger context for the Met in order to make it sustainable. He stresses the importance of the theater’s connectivity with the schools, the parks (the Arroceros Park is a short walk away) and the other structures around it. Integrating these areas into one body will benefit not only the theater but the whole district. He cites Sydney, Australia’s Riverside development as an example, and the concept totally worked.
The concept of connectivity isn’t a new idea, says Alcazaren. When he was commissioned to do a masterplan for the Rizal Park about 10 years ago, his group also saw the opportunity to integrate the park with the Plaza Lawton and the Met area, as well as the periphery of Intramuros all the way to the pedestrian bridges leading to Sta. Cruz, Escolta, and Quiapo.
“That way, there’s connectivity to where people actually live, to bring them by walking to the park itself. The park won’t work well unless you make it connected [with the other areas in the city],” he says.
In a Facebook post, which was what actually spurred this discussion on the Met’s future, Alcazaren pointed out that “the theater will not last without the context of its function as a cultural venue for communities around it.” He does not think it will survive if its physical context is not changed.
“The potential is that we can bring back not just the original plaza (originally Lawton, now Liwasang Bonifacio), but also create a new plaza to provide a better foreground for the Met Theater. With this, we can recover the public realm for people to use and enjoy; a venue of celebrations that would complement the theater and Post Office,” his post on Facebook reads. He also suggested that the Met plaza be named after Juan Arellano, the genius Filipino architect (and painter) who designed both landmarks.
The Met needs to cater to the community already existing around it. “You don’t expect people from Makati or BGC to go there. It has to be a theater for the community, otherwise it won’t work,” he says. With about half a million population residing on the districts around the building, this could be a viable prospect.
Making a viable business
Zerrudo points out the importance of having business development studies to ensure Met’s survival, and how it can synergize with the physical and the social community around it. “You can’t just be waiting for the general appropriations act or the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts (NEFCA) every year. You have a humungous structure to maintain,” he says.
Quintos supports Zerrudo’s argument. “My points go beyond just restoration. What are the artistic and audience development programs that will accompany the renovation? How will these be financially-supported? By government funding? Do the plans for the Met include venue rentals to independent producers? If so, can the theater compete technically? Renovating a theater is very different from creating sustainable theater activity. That was the whole problem with the Met’s second lease on life. They renovated, but there were no solid plans for sustaining theater activity and building an audience.”
The director stands by his previous suggestion to utilize the venue for creative reuse. “While [heritage conservation] will undoubtedly give us a great looking building, it is [sustainable theater activity] that will make sure that the Met truly lives on.”
The above suggestions should hopefully provide something for the concerned stakeholders to think about. The downtime offered by the pandemic could serve as an opportune moment to make plans, if none has been made yet. Because we surely don’t want to be resurrecting the Met in another 20 years.